Archive for June, 2021

Jun
28

When Life Feels Random

Posted by: | Comments (0)

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:   
 

a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
   a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NIV)

While poetic, reading these verses without their context can leave the reader somewhat frustrated. They seem to reduce one’s existence to random, chaotic and arbitrary experiences. Life is unjust, unfair and unjust. I think the writer’s point is clear: this is the stuff that happens in life, and if you live long enough, you’ll experience every event in these couplets. But the good news is that we don’t have to stop with verse 8. The following verses offer some insights as to how to navigate the undulations.

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-12, NIV)

Here are six observations from these verses.

  1. Embrace the Mystery. Life can be unsettling and leave us filled with questions. We want answers and believe we deserve them, but maybe the goal is not the answers. Maybe the goal is the next best question. Instead of demanding answers, form better questions.
  2. Enjoy the Beauty. It has been said that the purpose of art is to make us feel small in appropriate ways. I think that’s true of music and creation as well. The counsel to enjoy life’s beauty challenges us to life our eyes from life’s small irregularities and focus on things that are glorious.
  3. Engage the Eternal. We have been created as spiritual beings, able to live beyond our own horizon. The ability to possess eternal insight helps us see what ultimately matters now. Eternal perspective yields clarity on the present moments we experience.
  4. Find Joy in Sorrow. The spiritual fruit of joy is available to us, even in the midst of toil and trouble. That’s why we are able to laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously.
  5. Do Good for Others. The text calls us to serve, regardless of present circumstance. Lest we forget, the greatest way to serve God is to serve our fellow humankind.
  6. Finally, Be Content. Satisfaction is something everyone should aspire to have. More often than not, contentment is achieved in the small and simple more than the grand accomplishment. Think about Jesus. His ministry was surrounded by loaves, fishes, children, donkeys, mangers and mites. He wasn’t a reductionist. He just saw value in the people and things we often overlook.

The counsel of Ecclesiastes is helpful to me, and I hope you’ll consider these suggestions from chapter three. I hope you will find them beneficial as well.

Comments (0)
Jun
28

Let Go And Let God

Posted by: | Comments (0)

“Let go and let God” is bad theology, right beside other ‘fridge magnets like “God helps those who help themselves” and “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle on your own.”

When people say “let go and let God,” I think they mean that they are facing a situation that is beyond their control and therefore they are going to totally turn the situation over to God. But most often I hear the phrase spoken with the tone of resignation or giving up. My challenge with the phrase, since you asked, has to do with neglecting one’s own responsibility for whatever they are facing. While we should always acknowledge the sovereignty of God and our need for him in every waking moment, that acknowledgement does not mean that we extract ourselves from participating in the solution that God desires. For example, I believe God heals.

Two years ago I had a bicycle accident that resulted in two complete tears in the rotator cuff in my shoulder. I believe God heals, but I didn’t let go and let God. I went to the Emergency Room, scheduled an MRI, had surgery, and did 30 days of immobilization followed by another 30 days of physical therapy. Did God heal my shoulder? Yes. Even my surgeon acknowledged as much. But I needed to participate in God’s plan and provision.

God knows the truth of every situation we face and has sent his Holy Spirit to “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). Truth is our friend. Sometimes truth reveals to us the deep hurt buried within. Sometimes truth shows us what changes we need to make. It may expose our weaknesses and limitations, or a character flaw we have. Truth may help us to see the cracks in a relationship that we can not objectively see ourselves. The Spirit may clearly point out our part of a conflict, even though we are naturally prone to accept the role of victim. This is merely a sampling to point out that when we are faced with a difficulty we cannot simply lay it down and walk away with the expectation that God will clean up the mess. Yes, God will come alongside us in our struggles and he will walk with us through the valleys. With us. Not for us.

So instead of letting go and letting God, maybe it is better to say that we’ll trust God to work in us and through us as we depend on his wisdom, provision and strength in spite of our own human limitations.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
Comments (0)
Jun
20

Three Ideas For Sermon Series

Posted by: | Comments (0)

When I served in the local church I was always preaching a series of sermons, which meant that I was always brainstorming ideas for upcoming series of sermons. Sometimes they were expositions of entire books in the Bible or lengthy passages such as the Sermon of the Mount. Other times I enjoyed preaching a series on a biblical character such as Joseph, Moses or David. At other times I would do a thematic series on a topic such as prayer, fear, or suffering. I am a planner and like to have a general idea of where I was going over the course of the coming year. And I was always open to a series idea even though I may not get to it for a year.

Here are three series I really enjoyed preaching that I want to suggest. I think they were beneficial and well received, especially by our younger families.

The first suggestion is on the subject of contentment. I wasn’t a stewardship series, per se, but I did deal with what it meant to be content. I tried to answer the question, “How much is enough?” There are great texts available for this type of series filled with rich word images from the original languages.

The second is on simplicity. This could be timely, given the fact that we are coming off a world wide pandemic that basically forced us to simplify our lives. Many people, especially young families, discovered that they could have margin in their lives both in terms of time and money, and may be reluctant to give up the ground they gained.

The final suggestion is akin to the series on simplicity. It is on sabbath, and how to discover rest in a world of unrest. This topic is found throughout the Bible, and books such as Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba provide a lot of insight as to why Sabbath was important in history and remains important today.

There are many resources available on these topics. If you are intrigued by any of these ideas, I’d be glad to visit with you further. You can find examples of these sermons by using the search bar or the tag cloud on this site.

Categories : Pastors, Preaching, Sermons
Comments (0)
Jun
20

Overcoming a Bad Church Experience

Posted by: | Comments (0)

We all know someone, probably more than one, who used to be an active part in a local church, but no longer attend due to a “bad experience.” Anywhere. At all. Maybe they felt judged because of a decision they made or by their lifestyle. Maybe they felt shamed when they blew it, or invalidated when they struggled. Perhaps they felt forgotten, neglected or left out after they were no longer new and shiny. Maybe they didn’t agree with all of the church’s teachings. Or maybe they just asked too many questions. I know this list is incomplete. And I know that everyone who has been a part of a church has felt some level of relational friction or personal injury. Some drop out never to return, while many remain, determined to push through.

I’ve been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a brief book describing the unique Christian fellowship he experienced in an underground seminary during Hitler’s rule in Germany. As I read his book I think about the scores of people I’ve talked to who walked away from church.

I think there’s a lot of uniqueness to each person’s story, but two general themes rise to the top. First, is unrealistic expectations about what church should be. Yes, the community of Christ should be characterized by unconditional love and grace. At the same time, the characters in that same community are flawed and broken human beings. I’m not suggesting that the bar should be lowered. I am suggesting that the fact that people in the church should be acknowledged for who and what they are. Imperfect human beings attempting to live divine lives. Always remember that expectations are disappointments under construction.

A second reason is that the local church often possesses an uneven playing field. True enough, there are hierarchical structures embedded with a church’s governance. But if we’re being honest, we recognize there are unofficial hierarchies that are based on standards such as longevity of membership and dollars donated. There are cliques at work, especially in siloed ministries, that create territorial and turf wars over calendar availability, budget allocations, and the attention of talented volunteers. For some, these experiences can feel like the drama of high school, where bullies run the show and determine seating arrangements in the cafeteria.

When Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, he was fully aware that the community Christ envisioned and the reality of the same were not the same. His words, which I cite in length, represent one of the most profound texts on the subject I have read.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

There are those who love the idea of community and seek to foster the conditions of perfect fellowship where everyone looks, acts and thinks the same, eliminating any possible diversity which would threaten it. Then there are those who unconditionally love their Christian brothers and sisters. The churches that seek the latter and not the former are the churches that will remain.

Categories : Church, Community
Comments (0)
Jun
13

Casting Shadows

Posted by: | Comments (0)

This week I spent some time preparing a meditation on the Old Testament story of Ruth. Nestled in the first half of the OT, Ruth is generally interpreted as a sweet love story. The reader is introduced to the main character who is grief stricken over the passing of her husband. She and her sister in law are there with their mother in law, Naomi, wondering about their future. Famine has plagued the land, and the three women are jointly experiencing multiple layers of loss.

Because of the severity of the famine, Naomi decided she would return to her homeland, Israel. She then looked at her two young daughters in law and implored them to go find new husbands and remarry so they can move forward with the remainder of their lives. One accepts the challenge, but Ruth is deeply committed to Naomi and will have no part of it. It is in this critical moment that Ruth speaks these famous words: “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death separate us!” (Ruth 1:16-17, NLT)

As the story progresses we find Ruth is a remarkable person, although she didn’t do anything remarkable. She didn’t earn a graduate degree. She didn’t get a job in the corporate world, nor did she write a book or have a website. She never started a business or sold real estate. But time and time again the narrative affirmed her as a woman of character, integrity and depth. She would eventually marry a man named Boaz, and have a family.

The story could end there and the reader would be satisfied with the happily ever after that Ruth experienced. But the story concludes in an unexpected way. Here are the last three sentences of her story. “Boaz was the father of Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David” (Ruth 4:21-22, NLT).

To simplify, Ruth and her husband had a son, who had a son, who had seven sons, the youngest of which is David, arguably the most famous character in the Old Testament. Ruth is David’s great grandmother, and is specifically mentioned in Matthew’s ancestry record of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).

Ruth reminds me that we are human beings, not human doings. Ruth is not mentioned alongside the giant slaying heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. But her righteous character and integrity cast a long shadow that would extend all the way to Christ. As time passes, the shadows of our lives lengthen. Yet often we are led to believe that the only measurements that count are the things that can be counted such as our accomplishments and acquisitions. But not everything that can be counted counts. The stuff that cast shadows that are impactful is the stuff of who we are.

Ruth can be read as a sweet love story and left at that. But there’s so much more to her when her biography is read to the end. Or in her case, read through the end.

Jun
13

A Way Forward for the SBC

Posted by: | Comments (0)

I grew up in Southern Baptist life. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor. I was ordained in a Southern Baptist church, and educated in Southern Baptist institutions. I served SBC churches in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. My personal departure from SBC life came due to my inability to reconcile the denomination’s position on women and women in ministry. There was a disconnect between a hermeneutic that, on one hand, was woodenly literal, while on the other hand adapted perspectives based on cultural shifts.

Today and tomorrow nearly 20,000 delegates of the SBC’s churches will descend upon Nashville, Tennessee to conduct denominational business for the first time since the pandemic. While positive reports will be celebrated of the number of new churches that are planted and new missionaries that are commissioned for service, a cloud looms large overhead. The SBC, like other denominations, is challenged by the #metoo movement, which trends heavily in Twitter as #SBCtoo. It appears that the SBC is facing pressure to act on these local church issues, which is sticky given the denomination’s strong stance on church autonomy. The question to be considered surrounds whether or not this is a denominational issue and whether or not the SBC actually has any power over a church other than to withdraw fellowship. Is the denomination culpable for the behavior of ordained ministers that, in fact, they didn’t ordain?

Ordination in the SBC has been left to the local churches to determine and administer. There is no hierarchical process for qualifying candidates, credentialing candidates, or monitoring candidates. No educational requirements are in place. Generally speaking, the only limitations are that a candidate be male, and preferably not divorced.

Most mainline denominations have more stringent guidelines. When I became a part of the ABC-USA denomination in 2012, I found that ordination and credentialing came from the denomination, not the local church. A Master of Divinity was the baseline requirement. I was also required to sign that I would be compliant with a standardized code of conduct. Since my ordination was through the denomination, I was entered into the denomination’s national data base, which serves as the clearing house for ministers. I would be expected to keep my profile updated. They verified my education and employment history. If I was open to a relocation, I would notify the national data base who would make it known that I was open for a transition. If a church’s pulpit was vacant, they would notify the denomination who, in turn, would connect available candidates with the open church. If a candidate had a professional misconduct issue, their profile was flagged. The denomination’s system probably wasn’t perfect, and they certainly didn’t enforce candidates on churches who still were responsible for their selection process. But it did provide reduced risk for churches that sometimes don’t ask all the right questions, dive deeply enough into candidates backgrounds, or who found themselves at the mercy of the candidate’s personal references.

I don’t anticipate that the SBC will institute a process such as I have outlined. But until a system for transparency and communication is attempted, #SBCtoo is going to be an ongoing problem. Membership in any organization is not a right, it’s a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility for transparency and communication that is mutually shared by clergy, congregations, and the denomination as a whole.

Comments (0)
Jun
06

Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks

Posted by: | Comments (1)

“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen. He is my Beloved, who pleases me. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world” (Matthew 12:18-21, NLT).

Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus spoke of the kind of servant leader he would be. He would be Spirit filled and directed, pursuing justice in the world. He would be characterized by deep humility as well. I love the imagery of how Jesus would relate to humanity.

The weakest reed, having reached its breaking point, would not be snapped off, and the flickering candle, barely holding on to life, would not be snuffed out. These word pictures describe those who are at the end of their rope, barely clinging to hope. I don’t know if you can relate to either of those images, but I can. The preacher in Ecclesiastes warned that those who move boulders are in danger of being crushed by them (10:10). And those of us who pursue life to its fullest are in danger of being damaged by the same.

We have two basic options. One, we can live in fear, hoping that no one or no thing will pass by and cause further damage to our bruised reed or smoldering wick. To live in fear is to live with harsh limitations, for fear establishes the limits of our lives. If I’m afraid of heights, I stay low. If I’m afraid of water, I stay dry. If I’m afraid of change, I stay the same.

Option two is to live in faith. C. S. Lewis describes faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Fear brings into question the security we once held because it has been disrupted by circumstances often beyond our control. Faith, on the other hand, reminds us that even though we are broken, God has not changed.

Even though the reed is bruised and bent, it is not broken. And even though the flickering candle is close to being extinguished, it still holds life. Fear interprets those images as near the end. Faith sees them as opportunities to stand again and be reignited. Our comebacks can be greater than our setbacks. Therein lies our hope.

Comments (1)

Peter Oakes is the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester. His recent monograph, titled, Empire, Economics, and the New Testament*, provides a couple of resources for generosity that I wanted to share. I hope that you will find them beneficial.

ECONOMIC STRATIFICATION / CLASSES IN THE FIRST CENTURY

0.04% of the citizenry would consist of the “Imperial Elites.” This would consist of the local royalty and those on retainers, such as their family members and dependents. If you think about the Netflix series The Crown, Princess Margaret would be an example of one on retainer.

1% would be the “Regional or “Provincial Elites” who governed agrarian areas beyond the city limits.

1.76% of the people would have been the “Municipal Elites,” including some merchants who were highly successful.

7% were those with “Moderate Surplus Resources.” This group includes some merchants, some traders, some freed persons, some artisans/craftsmen (successful enough to have employees), and military veterans on pension.

Then comes the break between the haves and have nots.

22% in this group were “Stable Near Subsistence,” possessing a reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum amount of income to survive. Examples include merchants, traders, regular wage earners, artisans, owners of large shops, and some farm families.

40% lived “At Subsistence Level,” often below the minimum amount to sustain life. This class was composed of small farmers, laborers, those employed by artisans, wage earners, most merchants and traders, and some small shop owners.

28% lived “Below Subsistence Level.” This would be the unattached widows, orphans, beggars, the disabled, unskilled day laborers, some small farmers, and prisoners.

If I read Oakes’ data correctly, 68%+ of the Roman empire was either unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable. Their version of the upper class would have consisted of roughly 10%, leaving 22% to comprise the middle class.

The reason this data is important is that this is the context to which the Apostle Paul writes his letters and is the audience he is addressing when he writes about generosity. The data reveals that those who are being challenged to be generous had the least capacity to be generous, yet most responsive to his appeals. The sheer stratification does not take into account soft data such as the persecution and isolation of Christians in the Roman Empire under Nero. Yet Paul makes the case for generosity unashamedly.

PATRONAGE IN THE FIRST CENTURY

Paul’s argument for a culture of generosity was not uninformed. First century Roman citizens would have been familiar with the cultural practice of patronage (patrocinium), which was a social construct known throughout the preindustrial world. Oakes defines patronage as, “a nonmarket relationship between socially unequal people in which dissimilar benefits are exchanged” (Oakes, 109). Patronage was the way the economic elite disseminated their wealth to those less advantaged in urban areas. These benefactors may give by constructing public buildings as well as providing public entertainment, such as festivals. This culture mimicked generosity cultures in that everyone, regardless of their financial status, had the felt need of giving to those who had less. Certainly the elites made the biggest impact, but those who lived at or below the poverty line also desired to contribute to those in need.

So it would not have been uncharacteristic for the Apostle Paul to (1) solicit funds from those at or below the poverty line, (2) ask for funds on behalf of those who were suffering (e.g. the collection for the famine in Jerusalem, and (3) encourage them to make sacrificial gifts with joy. If Oakes is correct, perhaps Paul baptized the Roman culture of patronage and used it for Kingdom purposes in what we now call generosity. 


*Empire, Economics, and the New Testament, by Peter Oakes, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020.

Comments (0)