A Lament For Two Fathers

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Malachi 4:6

O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.
Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.

Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.
One father weeps, and one is still angry.

How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
One father weeps and one is still angry.
O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.

 

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Lent and Ash Wednesday

Repentance leads to life.

What is Lent? The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word “lengten,” which simply means “spring” — when the days lengthen and new life springs forth. It is a time in which we anticipate the victory of the light and life of Christ over the darkness of sin and death. It is, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, a season of a kind of “happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”

Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (just like Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter.

In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.

Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.

How Do We Observe Ash Wednesday?

Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. More and more Protestant and even evangelical churches hold some sort of Ash Wednesday services.

Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.

Why Should We Observe Ash Wednesday?

There is no biblical commandment that requires us to observe Ash Wednesday. Thus, I believe this one of those practices that Christians are free to observe or not to observe. The theological core of Ash Wednesday is, however, shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace, and salvation.

It also enacts biblical command to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.”

What I value most about Ash Wednesday is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections.

We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.

In Genesis 3:14-19 we read,

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

When we come to Genesis 3, we encounter a God who curses! He responds to Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the serpent’s treachery decisively. With the pronouncement of each curse and judgment, there is an undoing or reversal of God’s gracious creative works. Adam, who was created from the dust, is now destined to return back to it. Eve, who was created out of Adam, has now become dominated by him. The serpent, who was more crafty than any of the wild animals, is now humiliated, groveling on its belly, eating dust.

In this chapter, we see that sin has affected all of creation.

This text speaks to our desire to overlook our sins. God does not respond lightly to sin. Death entered the world with sin, and all manner of sorrow, suffering, and despair. But the worst of the curse would fall upon a different man many millennia later as Paul said in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Jesus would take upon himself a curse in order to redeem humanity’s status.

Prayer

Dear Father, I know you cannot take lightly the sins that I commit because you are a God of holiness who loves justice and does not allow evil to go unpunished. But I thank you for your wisdom and mercy in devising a plan that would allow the curse that was rightfully mine to fall upon your Son. In Christ’s Name, Amen.

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Oh, Be Joyful!

…We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:11

We who have a covenant relationship with Jesus are organically and spiritually connected to the most joyful being in the universe. That certainly is what a spiritual mentor of mine believed.

Central to the understanding and proclamation of the Christian gospel today, as in Jesus’ day, is a re-visioning of what God’s own life is like and how the physical cosmos fits into it. . . . We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. – Dallas Willard

We might not usually think of it this way, but I think it’s safe to say Jesus was the life of the party. He was so often in the midst of a celebration that he got in trouble with the religious authorities. They thought he and his disciples did too much feasting and not enough fasting (Luke 5:33–35; 7:34).

Why did people love to be with Jesus? If joy is the experience of being in the presence of someone who is glad to be with us, and if we like being around people who fill us with joy, then people loved being around Jesus because he brought them joy. Jesus was glad to be in the presence of all kinds of people: the sick, the poor, the rejected, and the outcast. And they responded with joy.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about the joy of heaven that flowed through him—the joy of finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. This joy of heaven flowed through Jesus to all who had lost hope of being accepted, welcomed or delighted in. When people come into the presence of Jesus—the presence of his joy—they are transformed by it.

Indeed, a main motivator for Jesus was to place his joy in us (John 15:11), a joy that will never be taken away (John 16:22). The joy Jesus gives is the knowledge that God delights in us and longs for us to dwell in his presence.

As theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “If we really think about it, we arrive at a surprising conclusion: Christianity is a unique religion of joy. Faith is living in the Christian feasts,” just as Jesus and his disciples feasted and celebrated.

And yet, Moltmann continues, “the universal symbol of Christianity is the cross, a symbol of pain, suffering, and cruel death. How do these things go together?”

How is the cross connected to joy? Let’s answer this by asking again, Why did Jesus have to die?

Certainly, there is a myriad of reasons.

  • To forgive us.
  • To take our penalty.
  • To free us from death.
  • To defeat the powers and principalities.

All these ways of explaining Jesus’ death begin with overcoming the consequences of sin.

But what if we started with Jesus’ joy? What if we started with God’s joy and delight in us? That God is for us because God longs to be with us.

What if Jesus longed to extend to us the delight and joy he experiences eternally as the Son in the presence of the Father through the Spirit? What if Jesus’ joy was to bring us into the joy he knew in his baptism, when the Spirit rested on him and the Father’s words of delight and approval washed over him?

Offering this joy was the “joy set before him.” Offering this joy to us was the reason Jesus “endured the cross,” bringing us into the joyful presence of the Father through the Spirit.

The apostle Paul declared this very thing:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4–6)

It is our joy to call out to the Father through the Spirit of the Son. And it is the Father’s joy to say over all who live in the Son, “You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

The celebration of heaven that Jesus told parables about (Luke 15) comes down to earth because of Jesus’ death, because through his body, through his death, we all…rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

As biblical scholar, N. T. Wright says, in Jesus, there has “come about a new union between heaven and earth, with the celebrations of one spilling over necessarily into the celebration of the other.”

This celebration between heaven and earth offers us joy here and now. This joy is no mere happiness receding into the past or pining for the future. It is a joy that remains in the present as we rest in the presence of the one who delights in us, even in the midst of sorrows, pain, and suffering.

Sometimes that joy reveals itself in the melody of a song, the words of a poem, or the laughter of a child. Sometimes it is the simple silence of a quiet moment with a Bible open on your lap. But no matter how it comes, it certainly comes.

As the psalmist says, Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

And so, dear friend, may you always remember that the safest and most joyful place to be is in the nail-scarred hands of the one the Heavenly voiced called Beloved.

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Who’s Laughing Now?

I wrote this blog and posted it on another blog on November 5, 2008, but I wanted to share it here to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

I was living in Eastland, Texas the first year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in full force.  At that time Texas was not the most integrated State in the land.  I remember specific sections of town being designated “Colored Town.” (That is what polite people called it.)  Sometimes we would drive over the railroad tracks and pass through that part of town and I remembered the houses on stilts with no skirting and lacking paint.  Here and there a car up on blocks with the wheels removed.

For the most part, yards were neat and tidy with bright, colorful clothes hung on the line in the back yards. Old men sat on the front porch—some smoking corn cob pipes, others just sitting in straight back chairs with dazzling white T-shirts, wearing fedora hats. And in my young mind, I felt as if this were not a good thing—this separated place for these people. I couldn’t say it then, for I did not have the language, but it felt oppressive.  It felt unfair.  Like they had done something wrong and living separated was their punishment.

My best friend that year in school was a girl named Victoria. Her desk was right next to mine in Mrs. Smith’s first-grade class.  We had nothing in common. I was a boy and she a girl. (girls were covered in germs back then) She was very good at school. I was an average student. She never got in trouble.  I got in trouble all the time.  I wore plain clothes. She wore bright colors. I was quiet in class. She was outspoken. I desperately wanted to fit in and play with the cool kids at recess. She was content to sit alone and read or jump rope by herself.

The one thing we had in common however was our sense of humor. I remember I could make her laugh. She had an easy and infectious laugh. That was one of the reasons I got in trouble because she would laugh at my silliness. And she was just as funny. We couldn’t play together at recess because boys didn’t play with girls in first grade without some major teasing by the cool kids. But in class—when Mrs. Smith had her back to us—we had a blast. Victoria was a great gal.

On parent /teacher night my mom wanted to meet this Victoria that I chattered so much about. I told her that it would be easy to meet her because she sat next to me. I was hopeful that she would be there that night at the same time we were there. My hopes came true. As my mom and I went into the classroom I took her over to show her my desk and there was Victoria with her mom too!

I turned to my mom and said, “This is Victoria.”

My mom paused.

Then she smiled and bragged to Victoria and her mom about how much I talked about Victoria when I came home from school every day. It’s “Victoria this and Victoria that.  Victoria said this and Victoria said that. Joe just goes on and on about Victoria.”

I remembered Victoria smiling and looking down at her shoes in a bit of awkward shyness. My mom and her mom exchanged some pleasantries. I just smiled at Victoria and she smiled back. But her smile eclipsed mine with her white teeth contrasted against her jet-black skin.

My first-grade class school picture.

Years later my mom reminded me of that night. She said the thing that she was so proud of about that first-grade friendship was the fact that I never mentioned Victoria’s skin color. And that told her that she and my father were doing a good job of raising color blind children in a segregated south.

(I am the one with the ears…back row third from the left. I suppose you can guess which one is Victoria.)

On November 4, 2008, our country elected its first black president. When Barak Obama wowed us with his victory speech I remembered “Colored Town.”  I remembered unpainted and un-skirted houses. I remembered news reports of National Guard troops being sent into volatile places in the south. I remember George Wallace blocking a doorway somewhere. I remember my mom crying when a white man killed Marin Luther King, Jr. I remember the news reporting race riots all over the country.

And now my president is a black man!

When President-elect Obama’s wife came on the stage with their two little girls——I also remembered Victoria.

Now some 43 years later I don’t know where Victoria is…. but I bet she is laughing.

I am laughing too, for change has indeed come. I am proud of our country.

Heavenly Father, please protect our new president and his family. Give him compassion for the unborn and voiceless of this world. Give him the strength to protect the innocent. Close his ears to evil. Give him discernment to be a good steward of the trust and treasury of our great land.  Give him grace and your blessings. Let no evil or harm befall him. Keep him humble and dependent upon You. May you be glorified through our new president.  Amen.

P.S.  I voted for McCain.

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The Silence

There is a silence that lives in the grass

On the underside of each blade

And in the blue space between the stones.

There is a silence that rests like a young bird in your palms. – Rolf Jacobsen

As we finally move towards the turning of the calendar on 2020, I am thinking about what I want to do differently in the coming days, weeks, and months. I don’t cotton to New Year’s resolutions, but I do think that the freshness of that hard-to-remember-number we write our checks, serves as a good starting line for some new rhythms.

The one that has surfaced in my soul is the idea of silence. As I thumb my way through the New Testament, I find that silence played an important role in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the start of his ministry, he spent 40 days in solitude and silence. Often, in his ministry, Jesus, who talked all the time, goes into places where he can be silent and hear silence.

In the first chapter of Mark, at the beginning of his ministry, very early in the morning while it was still dark, he withdrew to a solitary, silent place. Before he chose his disciples, he withdrew into silence. After he fed the 5,000, and the people want to make him a king. He withdrew into silence. After his friend John the Baptist is executed, Jesus withdraws into silence to grieve.

If Jesus, who lived in a much less noisy world and was the sinless Son of God needed to practice silence, there is a good chance you and I might need a little booster shot now and then.

How Can I Be Silent?

  • Give Your Mouth a Sabbath

I remember many years ago, Pastor Keith Carpenter did a Day of Silence. I remember being impressed with that. Any preacher who will take a day and shut up is a preacher I can be friends with! Haven’t you been around folks that you wish would have learned what my retired pastor friend, Phil Meyers told me one time? He said, “Pastor, silence may be golden, but duct tape is silver.”

I’ve determined that I am going to begin each day in a simple way. After I’ve made my coffee and it is sitting on the coaster beside my chair with steam curling up in gray swirls, I am going to sit very still for ten minutes—centering prayer. The only sound will be the slurp of my black coffee and the ticking of the house as she begins to stir to meet the day.

One Sabbath a month I am going to practice silence from sunup to noon. I will alert my wife of this ahead of time, but the idea is to be attuned to the voice of God instead of the sound of my own voice.

In conversations, I will do my best to not dominate conversations with my many words. I love what Henri Nouwen wrote,

“It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”

  • Give Your Ears A Sabbath

What if we take a fast from the news media? This will limit how much worldly pollution I put into my brain. Even if that worldly noise is just that—background noise. The point of practicing silence is not to practice silence.

When I am silent before the Living God, I feel like I walk into God’s house. I drop off all my excess baggage at the front door. I sit in God’s living room. God has a special chair for me. I am invited to sit and rest. It is here that I am loved, healed. It is my special time with God. No words need to be said or heard. We are two friends who can be silent in each other’s presence.

Or as Dallas Willard said, “People who love one another can be silent together.”

More than anything else, I want to be like Jesus. That means I am going to have to live like he lived—the ways and means of Jesus. Jesus practiced silence all through his life—all the way to the very end. If you’ve ever read through what is called the Passion Narratives, the story about Jesus’ death, we’re told about Jesus being silent.

It actually tied back to the ancient prophecy in Isaiah about the Messiah, the suffering servant that would be silent before his executioners like a lamb before the slaughter. This odd statement keeps coming up.

Jesus is silent before the chief priest. He’s silent when he’s mocked. He’s silent when he’s before Pilate. He’s silent when he’s before Herod. The narrative is peppered with these stories of Jesus’ silence.

Why? What’s the big deal about that? Jesus said to his disciples, just before he was crucified in Matthew 26:53, Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?

In other words, “Do you not know all I have to do is say the word, and there would be no suffering for me?” In fact, in the Gospels, that’s the great temptation that is put before Jesus: be the Messiah, but don’t suffer.

Right up until the very end, this is his great struggle. In a way we cannot comprehend, its as if heaven and hell watched Jesus in the garden, at the trial, on the cross and said,

“Just say the word, Jesus, and there will be no suffering. There will be no death. There will be no cross.

Just say the word, Jesus. All you have to do is say one word, and then no blood will be shed. No lamb will be slain. No curse will be born. No sacrifice will be made. No sin will be atoned for. No debt gets paid.

Just say the word. No redemption, and every member of the human race will die unforgiven, uncleansed, unreconciled, unsaved.”

When one word could save him and crush us, when one silence would save us and crush him, he was silent. He chose to be silent. He did not say the word.

In the end, we’re saved by that word Jesus did not say. Maybe Jesus was training his whole life for that silence.

In a way, maybe Jesus was training to show us all the words God could say to me but does not, words of judgment and condemnation and guilt I deserve and God does not say even though it killed him.

Maybe we are saved as much by the silence of God as we are by the Word of God.

That is the kind of silence that is golden indeed.

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Helping Your Pastor During the Pandemic

“I will probably be one of the statistics next year of pastors that left in the pandemic … and my church will be one of the ones that will not make it out the other side …” – a pastor

“I just had two families that I thought were very committed leave, because they were exasperated by the fact that I did not take a clear stand on some political issues.” – a pastor

“I had four couples leave the church because of my political positions on Black Lives Matter, Deep State, and Q Anon that I posted on social media.” – a pastor

The above quotes from different pastors came to me in the last 24 hours. I spoke with a denominational leader in a different part of the country that told me that he is seeing ministers staggering under the load of pastoring during the upheaval of the pandemic, the racial tensions, and the political fault lines in churches.

Many pastors are just one minor conflict away from quitting.

We are in a lose/lose season as pastors. If we take moral stands on Biblical issues, we run the risk of being labeled a socialist or a fascist—depending on the issue. If we choose to close the church to public gatherings, we run the risk of being called a “sheeple” and a “snowflake.” If we defy the recommendations of the public health officials and gather to meet on Sundays, we run the risk of spreading a deadly disease that is killing an American every sixty seconds.

Sometimes your pastor says things on social media that cause you to cringe. So do you.

Everyone’s soul is inflamed and tender to the touch.

Pastors are at risk of quitting and never returning just when we need them the most to stand at their post and do the two things that Scripture says pastors are to do: devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.

Would you like to hear from a pastor that is battling to stay in the trenches about what you could do for your pastor?

Ways to Help Your Pastor

My church is struggling to stay encouraged. She hasn’t seen the attendance this sparse since her birth over fifty years ago. Our giving is not great, but it is steady.

So, I am going to share with you some ideas that come from my heart. If they are true of this pastor, they might be true of your pastor as well. Two negatives and two positives. First the negatives:

Don’t give unsolicited advice.

This is good counsel during normal times, much less during a worldwide pandemic. Don’t send your pastor some esoteric blog or YouTube video. Don’t quote him scripture. Or platitudes that belong on a greeting card.

Chances are your pastor has been doubling down on prayer and spending time in God’s Word during 2020 along with reading everything they can get their hands on about how to survive this toxic year. They have time on their hands to do the research. Leave them to it.

Saint Paul reminds us,

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Stop grumbling. Stop complaining. There will be a time to do a postmortem on how we handled the pandemic, but it is not right now. If you have a good idea that might really help your pastor, simply ask them if you could share with them an idea you have at some point. If your pastor says yes, share it. If they say no or are skittish, then don’t share it.

Don’t give your favorite media personality more spiritual gravitas in your life than your own pastor.

James Dobson, Eric Metaxes, and John McArthur will not stand before Jesus one day and give an account for how they cared for your soul. They are not your pastor. They are media personalities. They will never administer the sacraments to you. They will never visit you in the hospital. They will never attend or officiate your mother’s funeral.

Don’t let them have more spiritual influence over you than the one who speaks your name to the Father every week and stands before you to preach week in and week out.

Listen to the pastor that God has put in your life to walk with you on your journey towards life after this life.

The writer of Hebrews tells it straight, Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you. (Heb. 13:17)

Are you causing your pastor to sigh?  Are you the reason they are losing their joy? May it never be.

Now a couple of positive things you can do.

Do take some of the responsibility

Feed yourself spiritually. Spend unhurried time in God’s Word. Worship God daily. Make sure you are caring for your own soul. Spiritual arrested development is a real problem in the church today. Don’t put all that responsibility on your pastor.

Reach out to others in your fellowship. Nothing encourages a pastor’s heart more than to contact someone in the church and find out they have been ministered to by someone else in the congregation. Call them, send them a card, or an email. Perhaps a twist on an old question might help—WWPD. What would my pastor do? Reach out. Love. Care for the folks in your congregation as if you didn’t have a pastor. You can’t over care during these times.

If you can gather, gather. If you can’t gather or don’t feel comfortable gathering due to health concerns, watch online. If you can’t watch online, communicate to someone that you want to receive a DVD or audio recording of the sermon. Pastors spend hours and hours studying and praying over their weekly sermon. When only a handful of in-person people are there to hear it and a smaller amount bothers to tune in online—it is discouraging. Let your pastor know that you are there and are listening.

In other words, show up in his or her world.

There are two ladies that communicate to me nearly every week what they specifically heard from God through my sermon. They are a huge encouragement to my heart.

Do pray for your pastor and their spouse.

The isolation, the loneliness, the pressure, the political and social landmines—all can make a pastor feel as if they are running uphill in molasses. I promise you this, no pastor wants to not gather for worship. Not a single pastor in the history of the church hoped one day they would preach to an empty church and into a webcam.

Prayer sustains pastors. They pray for you. Pray for them. You need to know that the Evil one is coming for your pastor. The Devil knows if he can discourage your pastor, he has a foothold in the church. When he has a foothold in the church, the church becomes impotent at best and a public disgrace to the community at worst.

Let your pastor know in creative and specific ways that you are praying for them. And don’t forget the pastor’s spouse. Every single barb, jab, and slight aimed at the pastor—cuts right through the spouses’ heart like a knife through warm butter.

Prayer helps. Never forget that.

There a couple of lines from a John O’Donohue poem that has resonated with me lately,

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.

Learn to linger around someone of ease

Decide today that you will never be a person vexed in spirit towards your pastor. Be a person of ease.

Pastors have known for years that they often are lightning rods for the internal pain of their congregants. We have been verbally assaulted in the wake of a tragedy. We have borne the brunt of folk’s fundamental disappointment with the church and God. We understand that. It goes with the turned around collar.

But please remember, we didn’t become pastors to make money or to make a name for ourselves. We obeyed a call to shepherd sheep. Smelly sheep. Sheep just like you. I know pastors are stinkers too. I look at the biggest stinker I know every morning in the mirror. Eugene Peterson said it best, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”

Your pastor loves you. They have been awakened in the middle of the night with you on their heart. They have climbed out of bed to get on their knees to pray for you. Your pastor’s soul is tender right now. They are hurting, so remember,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. 

The running joke among pastors is, “Describe a day when you want to quit the ministry.”

The pastor responds, “Mondays.”

These days that might include Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and any given Sunday.

Covenant with yourself that you will never be the pebble in the pastor’s soul that makes him want to quit pastoring the church.

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Ways to Be Grateful

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Jesus and Politics

Many Christians I talk to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t talk about or get involved in politics at all. It is just too divisive. My experience is that it is only divisive if I disagree with you. In other words, talk all you want about politics, pastor, as long as we are in agreement.

Someone told me the other day that Jesus never talked about politics. Wrong. Jesus called out the religious leaders and political leaders of his day. He stood tall against the oppression of the weak in every way imaginable—all the way to the cross.

When you study the Gospels — and the political and socioeconomic backgrounds behind them — you begin to realize why Jesus was feared by all the major political parties. Jesus’ message was incredibly political. His teaching and parables on law, taxation, party attitudes, the judicial process, and foreigners challenged all the political leaders of his day.

I’ve come to believe that people hold their views about almost anything because of a combination of three factors:

Intellectual/theological reasons

We all hold our views because they make sense to us. I think about when life begins, and I believe it begins in the womb—at conception. That impregnated embryo is a live person who is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, it only follows, for me, that it is not fetal tissue it is a baby. Therefore, to take that baby out and dispose of it is taking a human life.

That makes sense to me.

But there are those that feel pro-choice is a complex process – it’s not just about abortion, but about birth control, or having a child – it’s about all reproductive choices. It’s having access to information so that a woman can reach their own decisions without interference. And it’s about who makes the final decision. Not a judge or the government, but the woman. It’s about having options and celebrating freedom.

That makes sense to them.

Emotional or personal reasons

When emotions get injected into an argument it inflames your thinking and is why you see so much anger at the rallies of both candidates.

Lynette and I watched the film “42” about the life of Jackie Robinson. The actors portraying racism in the film showed so much anger, disgust, and contempt for black people it was shocking to watch. If you ever read about the Jim Crow south and what was done to African-American people it hurts your heart, but you must remember that the perpetrators of those prejudices felt very deeply that they were right.

They might not have thought very deeply, but they felt deeply.

Social reasons

We hold our views about an issue or a party because of the social context we find ourselves in. We like to fit in. We want to be a part of the tribe. And when we spend our time surrounded by people that think like we think we get caught in a trap that some might call an echo chamber.

An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.

The more one watches cable news channels, read blogs, or engage in conversation with friends or family that affirm their view of how things should be, the more deeply ingrained those views become.

These three concepts are pillars that hold up our core beliefs. Changing one of these pillars will never change a belief. This is why we fight so hard and resist arguments so passionately. And it is why Christians can fight each other over political or theological issues.

How do we break out of this and follow Jesus’ method of cultural change? Jesus shows us the way as He stood before the governor of Judea, the politician, Pilate.

 And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, “Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!” Mark 15:3-4

Pilate is saying, “Jesus, they are killing you! Look at what they are doing! Look at the charges brought against you, aren’t you going to defend yourself?” Pilate must have done some investigation and a background check of some kind on Jesus. Jesus was no threat. But Jesus refuses to use violence or power or anger or rage to defend Himself. This was a strange thing for Pilate to witness.

Jesus Had an Inner Peace

If we follow close enough to our Master, we will absorb that same inner peace.

Pilate saw the contrast between Jesus and His frothy enemies who were so threatened by his message and methods that they were frantic in their attempts to make sure that Jesus was not set free.

But Jesus is so calm and serene as if He knows that he is on a divine path that is being orchestrated by His Father. Forces from outside this realm were at play, writing the script as it was being lived out in that moment. Jesus trusted the Author and is calm and worry-free.

His enemies are using power to destroy Jesus. Jesus is using weakness to destroy power. His enemies took up political structures, procedures, and intrigue to do away with Jesus. Jesus lays down all his power and embraces weakness and vulnerability. They are enraged and violent—-Jesus forgives his enemies.

This is not how you start a revolution! Revolutions start with violent insurrections…by taking power and destroying your enemies. You out shout your opponents. You out organize them. You fire up the base! Yet Jesus is starting a revolution through loving His enemies and forgiving them.

Jesus Destroyed Power with Weakness

This is the most counter-cultural aspect of the way Jesus dealt with politics.

In our times, the religious right and left have mistakenly assumed that if they get power; if their candidate gets in office and can exercise his or her power by appointing justices to the supreme court that hold to their world view or other places of influence they then can get their country back to where it ought to be.

That was not Jesus’ way. Jesus didn’t try to lead Herod, Pilate, or the high priest Ananias or Caiaphas to his cause. The only persons of influence that were interested in Jesus’ message and kingdom were Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. And they came to Jesus. (we don’t know how Joseph came to Christ)

Jesus’ strategy for His Kingdom was never to stack the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court and Congress of His day) with his followers.

Earthly power was never The Jesus Way. Power politics will always deteriorate into an idol where the ends justify the means. For two thousand years, history has shown us that when the church gets in bed or even flirts with the state—bad things happen for the culture. Everyone loses, except the state.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation.  ~ Saint Paul

How do we live as followers of Jesus in a post- Biden/Trump victory on November 3rd?

Have you ever heard of “The Jesus Prayer”?  “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is based on the publican’s prayer in Luke 18:13.

The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance that was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?

Olive oil

The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting, and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hessed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’

If the followers of Jesus would allow themselves to be oil in the hands of the Great Physician, we could bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted and the battered souls of our land. But we can’t do that if we are busy trying to win through power. It only comes through weakness. Jesus showed us the way.

Fernando Ortega has become one of my favorite artists in the last few years. Here is his song Kyrie Eleison:

Would you pour yourself out with me?

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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Living at the Speed of Love

God walks “slowly” because he is love. If he is not love he would move much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is “slow” and yet it is lord over all the other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depths of our life whether we notice it or not.

-Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile An Hour God

The world is tired. We are suffering from perpetual motion sickness. I sit with people either in person or over a video call on a weekly basis that have a vacant look in their eyes and a heaviness to their countenance. They are weary.

That weariness is revealed in a full schedule and the ubiquitous electronic umbilical cord we carry around with us—our smartphones.

Annie Dillard has famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

We wrestle with resting. Why do we find it so hard to slow down?

It’s countercultural to go slow

Regular stopping was once embedded into our weekly, monthly, and yearly calendars. I can remember when walking out of the office marked the end of the day’s work, when Sundays equaled rest days and Christmas holidays stretched on for weeks, even months. That’s rare these days.

In our culture, however, for someone to be busy is a sign that they are in demand. And if you are in demand, you are important.

I know pastors who wear their busyness like a badge of honor. Feelings of importance can seduce us. And often it comes from professional insecurity. Medical professionals are always busy. Lawyers are busy. CEO’s are busy. Engineers are busy. Accountants are busy. Highly respected and successful professionals are busy.

To slow down, to take rest seriously, to open up blank space in my daily schedule for doing nothing feels inefficient. To feel inefficient is not too far away from ineffective. To be ineffective is not very far away from being incompetent. We can’t live with that.  

Inefficient, ineffective, incompetent—not very aspirational. Our culture would reject us if that were to describe us. So, we stay busy to mask whatever weakness we might actually have.

I have had people come to me and say, “I know you are a busy pastor, but…” I have to assure them that I am not a busy pastor. I am a pastor who has time on his hands. Time for prayer. Time for study. Time for silence. Time for stillness. Time for people. Time for God.

Our identity is wrapped around the axel of being busy

If we derive a good chunk of self-esteem from being a super-worker, doing less could equal less praise – so how do I get to feel valued and important anymore?

Many people do what they do at the pace they do it because they enjoy the adrenaline high that comes from always being busy. Not only that, there is an identity crisis that busyness masks. If I am always busy, then I don’t have to come to terms with the truth that if my identity is wrapped up in my schedule or success my very existence is almost always threatened. I live as if failure is lurking around the corner just waiting for me to stop or slow down and then it will pounce on me like a cat on an unsuspecting mouse.

Doing always equals being. That’s the axiom of our culture.

Back in the 1960s the popular folk group, Simon and Garfunkel had a hit song that is about as countercultural as it gets for our day:

Slow down, you move too fast
You’ve got to make the morning last
Just kickin’ down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy

Hello lamppost, what’cha knowin’?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’tcha got no rhymes for me?
Do-in do do, feelin’ groovy

I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning-time drop all its petals on me
Life I love you, all is groovy

Here are some practices that have helped me to slow down and harvest that spiritual fruit of feeling groovy.

For My Exterior Life

  • Every morning I spend an hour in my woodshed (weather permitting) reading God’s word and listening to the day awaken. If not in my woodshed, then in my favorite chair next to a window so that I can watch the night give way to the day.
  • There are times during my day that I get up from my desk and take a walk outside around the perimeter of my Church building. This change of pace opens my senses to the sights, smells, and sounds of the outside world. It takes seven minutes to walk around my building.
  • Monday through Friday I lead a 15 minute guided prayer time at noon with a handful of pilgrims from different parts of the country over zoom.
  • I block out time on my daily calendar to do—nothing.
  • Every Saturday I practice Sabbath.

For My Interior Life

  • I listen to soft instrumental music that soothes my soul. I have favorite Pandora and Spotify stations that I use. Often film scores like Out of Africa or The Mission.
  • I read the Psalms every morning. I have a reading plan that takes me through the Psalms in two months. I read them three times a day. Morning, noon, and before I go to bed. I read them slowly. Painfully slow.
  • I read poetry aloud. I have discovered this practice in recent years, and I can sense my interior clock slow down. Poets like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Robert Seigel, Judy Brown, and John O’Donohue.
  • I am working my way through hand-copying the New Testament into a journal. I call this Scriptio Divina (Sacred Writing). I write in cursive ten verses every morning. This practice slows me down to see words, word pairings, and phrases that I have often missed as I hurry to get my Bible reading in before wolfing down my breakfast and rushing off to work.

I offer these as suggestions. They all may not work for you. But it is important to find ways to slow down in a world that is spinning out of control. My grandfather used to say to me, “Joe, don’t just sit there, do something!” I’ve come to say to myself these days, “Joe, don’t just do something, sit there.”

There is a difference between being tired and being weary. I am tired after I preach my sermon each Sunday. I am tired after I split a cord of wood. I am often tired after a day’s work of studying, listening, and caring for people.

But weary is different. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9, let us not be weary in well doing. Weariness is a soul-sickness. This comes to us when we live out of rhythm from God’s design of Sabbath-keeping and building into our day white space in our schedule for interactions with Jesus.

Weariness comes to us when we don’t attend to the One who said,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

I think it worthy to note that Jesus was never in a hurry and he was never late. Can you keep pace with Jesus? You can if you follow him.

After all, he walks at the speed of love.

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Sacred Opportunity

When I was a young boy my father came to my brother, sister, and I and said, “If one of you will come to town with me I promise you won’t regret it.”  I had been to town before so I said no.  My brother mumbled something about being bored sitting in the car while Dad was at some church meeting.

But my little blond-haired, snaggled-tooth sister beamed and said she would go. My Dad and sister loaded up in the car and drove the three miles to town while my brother and I went back to playing. We played for about an hour when we looked up the long dirt driveway from the main road that led to our house and saw that sister of ours riding a bike down the road. She had a grin so big that you could count the bugs on both of her teeth.

“Hey, where did you get that bike?” we asked.

“Someone gave it to our family,” she said.

Dad, who had been following her in the car,  pulled up and had a smile on his face. We looked at him like he had pulled a fast one on us. We were a poor family, so for us to be given a used bike was a big deal. And to be the first to ride it was a bigger deal. And to get to ride it all the way home from town—that was a privilege that my sister would gloat about to her older brothers for a long time.

We started to whine about it not being fair and he stopped us and said, “You had the same amount of information she had, but she trusted and acted on that information.  You wanted to play.”

Our problem was that we didn’t know a good opportunity when it was offered. She trusted her father and reaped the benefits.

Our God is the God of the open door.  When people trust God and walk through open doors, the power of God is set in motion and things beyond our ability to make happen.

At the end of the ancient book that we love Jesus speaks of another door. This is not a door of opportunity. It is a door to the heart, but it is closed.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.     Rev. 3:20 KJV

This is one of the most tender images in the Bible.

One time when our twin granddaughters were about four years old they were spending the weekend with us and I walked down the hallway towards my room and could hear them playing house in their room at our house. Little red-headed girl chatter about tea, flowers, and cake.

I stood outside and listened to the conversation between these little angels and my heart melted. I did the only thing a grandfather of grandgingers could do under those circumstances—I politely knocked on the door. Presently, little Addie, who wants to marry me when she grows up, opened the door. When she saw me she exclaimed with a huge smile, “Cadie, we have guests!”

I went in and enjoyed a wonderful pretend meal.

When you love somebody, you wonder; will the door always be open? Will I always be welcome in that heart?  What will I do if one day I knock and they don’t answer?

As my grandfather might have said, “Jesus stands there, outside the locked door of my heart with His hat in his hand—waiting for me to let Him in.”

God has designed you with this door to your heart that can only be opened from the inside. No one can force you to love them.  No One.  Not even God.  Only you can open the door of your heart. God Himself will not violate that door.  But He won’t go away either! Because He loves His children too much.

If you will open the door of your heart, he will come in and you will share the most tender and rich intimacy you could ever imagine.

Doors of opportunity and intimacy are waiting for you. Open the door. I promise you won’t regret it.

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