The Church

the-church

What is the Church’s identity?

Who are Christians?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

Maybe you have wondered what in the Sam Hill this church thing is all about, or what it is supposed to be about.  It could be that you have abandoned the notion of “church” altogether, opting for a more private spirituality free from the machinations of power people in a broken system.  Let’s face it: there just may likely be more unhealthy churches in America than healthy ones.  After all, in a chaotic topsy-turvy world, folks end up making church in whatever image they’d like.  It seems to me this points to a great need to recover a more historic and robust understanding of this practice of “church.”  So, let’s explore how church ought to be and seek to live into it’s distinct vision for believers in Jesus everywhere.

The Church’s identity:

            The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit.  This special relationship that followers of Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenantal relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenantal community.  That is, believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God’s covenant with his people means that God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, predestination, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution, but is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined together through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

BeChurch

The Nicene Creed* describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

The Church’s mission:

  1. The Church is called to love God. The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells.  The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints.  The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners.  The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is, the forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

20180603_114756

The Church’s importance:

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way in order to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach.  The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

ibelieve

*The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,

            the Father, the Almighty,

            maker of heaven and earth,

            of all that is, seen and unseen.

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only Son of God,

            eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten, not made,

            of one being with the Father;

            through him all things were made.

            For us and for our salvation

                        he came down from heaven:

                        was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

                        and became truly human.

            For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

                        he suffered death and was buried.

                        On the third day he rose again

                                    In accordance with the Scriptures;

                        he ascended into heaven

                                    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

                        He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

                                    and his kingdom will have no end.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

            who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

            who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

            who has spoken through the prophets.

            We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

            We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

            We look for the resurrection of the dead,

                        and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.

Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones’ loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident.  He has no explanations – just grief.  At one point he had a profound insight:

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.  I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only in-spite-of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his Passion.  The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Okay everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city, desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it.  Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells.  The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden.  But you need to be willing to wait, in some cases, years.  Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan.  Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

Abide with Us

20180427_152607

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.

Intellectualizing Our Pain

intellectualization

We live in a world full of pain.  I work with people in pain.  As a Pastor, I deal with a variety of people’s spiritual and emotional pain – every family, without exception, has some hidden underlying pain that no one sees by looking in from the outside.  There is dark secret pain which comes from a staggering variety of sources.  There is also the more obvious physical pain.  Just the other day, I responded to a call from a social worker to visit an incorrigible woman who usually calms down when the Chaplain is around.  The woman was in pain, and the kind that isn’t going away any time soon, if ever.  Of course, she was incorrigible.  I would be, too.

Our responses to pain are as varied as we are as individual people.  The kind of reaction to pain I want to highlight is one that I am personally most familiar with: intellectualization.  That is, coping with pain by cutting it off from the emotions and putting it squarely in the arena of the rational analytical mind.  If we can split off the painful feelings (so the shadow-self says) and lay them aside, then we can avoid the hurt.

Just so you know, I just described an unhealthy way to deal with troubles.  Bifurcation of our feelings and setting them aside, like using a cleaver to separate bone from meat, doesn’t actually deal with the agony – it simply removes it so as to not have to feel any terrible effects.  In other words:

Intellectualizing a problem is a defense mechanism ingeniously designed mostly in the subconscious to block out pain, ignore emotional stress, suppress spiritual trauma, and stuff down a host of ailments residing in our bodies and our souls.

Using the intellect as a substitute for emotional work goes something like this:  If I can just distance myself from anxiety, worry, and unpleasant feelings associated with a particular condition, then I can remove the pain.  If I can get away from the pain, then all we become well.  I will hide my feelings so they can’t come out to play and wreak havoc in my personal protected emotional playground.  For example, when my grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy, I became an expert on it… and medical marijuana… and treatment options… and various diagnoses and prognoses… and on and on and on, ad infintium, ad nauseum.  Intellectualizing his condition put off the hard emotional work of facing my own painful feelings.

There is not a thing wrong with educating yourself and learning all you can about a situation or problem.  Yet:

When the reading, discovery, and exploration of a particular problem, disease, or issue becomes a way to avoid feeling the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions that are evoked because of the situation, then it is high time to set aside the books and the interactions on the cerebral level long enough to engage some very needed emotional work.

For me, thinking about the situation with my grandson (or my wife, or a jillion other people, events, and problems in my life!) can far too easily become an exercise in rational and clinical analysis.  Talking about it only on the level of cold and detached ways of logic and reason keeps the unwanted emotional pain associated with it at bay.  Bottom line: I am afraid to feel, because if I feel all the emotions wrapped-up in a little boy who doesn’t deserve all the challenges and pain of epilepsy, I’d be completely undone (and we can’t have that, now, can we!?).

20170705_152842

So, I soldier on, encouraging the emotions of others, all the while ignoring my own inner crap.  You might be wondering at this point, “So, what, then, are we supposed to do??”

Glad you asked.  The more important question is: “So, what, then, are you supposed to feel??”  When God created us in his image, He made us in His emotional likeness.  God feels all kinds of emotions, and He feels them all deeply.  I think we sometimes forget that.

Let me remind you of an instance of divine emotion in a time of terrible trouble.  The people God formed to be like Him, decided to go their own way.  As a result, the world became horribly violent, with people embracing evil to the point “that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.”  God’s response was first and foremost, an emotional response: “The LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Genesis 6:5-6).

God only made a cerebral and rational plan to deal with humanity after He felt deeply about the situation.  This makes me wonder:

How much more must we ourselves get in touch with all those unwanted emotions, before we decide to plod ahead in a rational course of action?

Will we choose to allow ourselves to feel deeply about what the heck is going on?

Will we even go there?

I want you to grab hold of this thought and not let go:

We cannot go any further with a rational course of action than we have first been willing to go just as far emotionally with identifying and feeling all the stuff that’s inside us.

Jesus, the perfect embodiment of God, felt an array of emotions:  from sheer astonishment over someone’s sincere faith, to intense grief over the people not getting what he was doing; from wondering joy while telling poignant parables, to fierce anger concerning his Father’s house being used irreverently; and, from playful banter with his disciples, to deep sorrow over the stubborn lack of faith in so many.  Our Lord expressed his feelings as the ideal will of God in all kinds of situations.  In short, Jesus didn’t set aside emotions; didn’t circumvent them; and, didn’t call them bad.  Christ freely engaged his emotions as both man and God.  Feelings were not just part of the human side of him; it was actually much more the divine side.

I understand that it gets dicey with emotions.  Every person on planet earth is a bundle of contradictions, and, so, emotions get expressed in both helpful ways as well as in damaging ways.  We all have been hurt, and we’ve all hurt others.  Welcome to life in this world.  Which means it is even more important for us to acknowledge and deal with all of our emotions, whether we ascribe to them “good” or “bad” labels.

Every feeling is there for a reason, tapping you on the shoulder trying to get your attention.  To heap all those feelings together in a mental garbage dump so that you can get on to the business of living your life without pain is only going to exacerbate your trouble in the long run.

“How is your heart doing today?” and “Tell me about how that feels” are just as much viable and pertinent questions for health as a medical doctor asking you about your physical symptoms.  Keeping things solely in the physical/mental realm and diminishing the soul with its vast feeling universe might enable you to get through today, but it isn’t going to help you tomorrow.  The emotional pain will still be there, and unhealthy ways of coping with it will eventually catch up to you.

Instead, three practices can enable you to identify and express your emotions in a manner that is healthy, helpful, and downright holistic.  They are:

  1. Talking on the feeling level with a trusted friend, minister, or counselor;
  2. Writing in a journal all the details of how you are doing and feeling. In other words, create space to express what’s going on.  No one else has to see it, unless you want them to.  I personally would encourage you to write in your journal, and then simply read a portion of it to your trusted friend and talk about it.
  3. Praying to a big God with all your big emotions. You can say things to God that you would never say to another person, and that’s okay.  He’s big enough to handle all your feelings, your emotionally-charged questions, your drama, and any ostentatious displays of feeling.  God isn’t going anywhere; He is always there to listen and nothing will surprise Him, annoy Him, or befuddle Him.  The Lord operates on the currency of grace in his kingdom, so this ought to free you and me to be with Him in ways that are life-giving.

None of these practices operate solely in the world of ideas and thoughts.  Rather, they are designed to integrate the fragmented soul with the shattered mind so that true emotional wholeness, spiritual wellness, and just plain life enrichment can happen in new and healthy ways.

You are on a journey, and not a guilt trip.  Take advantage of the God who is available, and the humungous world of emotions he has provided you with.  Face each one squarely with His Spirit as your guide and His people as your support, and you will discover a kind of healing from pain that you never knew could exist.

Psalm 99 – The Holy Helper

20180604_200801

Our ideas of God take shape in the many ways in which we live our lives.  A God who is always right, fair, just, and loving in everything he says and does is a God we can place our complete trust.  A cranky god who is aloof and indifferent doesn’t help anyone.  Yet, with the true God of all creation we can be assured of a strong spiritual support for any and every situation.  When we have as our ally a robust theology which informs how we think and gives shape to how we act, then we can step forward with confidence knowing that God has our backs.

Sound theology doesn’t simply happen; it needs to be identified, nurtured, and expressed in daily life.  Remember, the Old Testament psalms are the church’s prayer book.  Each individual psalm is meant to be an inspiration to prayer, as well as serving as the actual prayers themselves which we can utter to God.  To use the psalms as boots-on-the-ground prayer is essential to providing a firm foundation from which to know and serve God.

As I often do, I’ve provided my own translation of today’s psalm which captures the spirit of the text.  I encourage you to pray it over slowly, several times, and with proper emotional flavor behind the words.

The LORD rules; let all people everywhere who live unjustly, shake in their boots!

            God sits enthroned above all creation; let the earth quake on its foundation!

The LORD is great among his people;

            In fact, He is far above all people.

Let everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from, praise Your great and awesome name.

            He is holy!

Mighty Ruler, the lover of everything that is just and right,

            You are the One who established what is fair and equitable;

You labored behind the scenes for causes which are just and right,

            and brought harmonious relations to folks at odds with each other.

Magnify the LORD, our God!

            Approach Him with great and mindful humility!

            He is holy!

Godly people of old such as Moses and Aaron were among his devout followers;

            Those like Samuel were among the humble who called on His Name.

People from times long ago have cried out to the LORD, and He has answered them.

            He spoke to the ancient Israelites in a great pillar of cloud.

They sought to keep and entrust His gracious rules given to them.

O LORD our God, you answered them;

            You were a forgiving God to them,

            Yet, you also were the One who held them accountable when they slid off the rails.

Magnify the LORD our God!

            Humble yourselves and worship at His holy mountain,

            because no one is like the LORD our God, a holy Helper!

Amen.

Leviticus 23:1-8 – There’s More to Life Than Work

20170925_105157_resized

“The Lord said to Moses:  Speak to the Israelites and say to them: These are my appointed times, the Lord’s appointed times, which you will declare to be holy occasions:  Work can be done for six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of special rest, a holy occasion. You must not do any work on it; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Common English Bible)

When I was kid, watching the cartoon The Jetsons was a Saturday morning ritual.  The futuristic family featured George the husband and father, an employee of Spacely Sprockets.  In one episode, George comes home and is met by his dog, Astro, and wife, Jane, looking tired and haggard from a day’s work.  George’s comment when he entered on the treadmill through the door was, “Jane, these 3 hour work days are killing me!”

Indeed, the technological progress of post-war America had led to the common belief among many that with so many advancements, workdays would become smaller, with leisure time growing.  In the 1960’s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that technology would provide the masses with unprecedented amounts of discretionary time for whatever they would want to do.

the jetsons

Fifty years removed from The Jetsons we now know what Americans and people across the world would do with time-saving devices: We simply work a lot more.  Just the opposite has occurred from having loads of leisure time.  People discovered that greater efficiency with technology has brought an equal competition for business and making more money.  Time saved has translated into accomplishing more work, and not in taking vacations and indulging in new hobbies and ventures.

The 4th command of God’s Ten Commandments is needed today more than ever.  It is time to come back to this basic instruction of the Lord, and engraft its wise counsel into our lives.

“Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded:  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Common English Bible)

The point of God’s command to his people is neither to squash commerce, nor to be a curmudgeon about fencing one day a week of doing nothing; instead, the command for Sabbath is designed to be a life-giving day where we discover that:

There is more to life than work.

The word “Sabbath” literally means “to rest.”  God built into his creation a rhythm of rest and work.  God Himself rested, not because he was tired, but because he ceased working long enough to enjoy the earth and everything in it.  Everything in life is done in rhythm.  We walk in rhythm, talk in rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm.  The earth cycles in rhythmic seasons of the year, and the animal kingdom mates and lives in annual rhythms.  All creation is rhythmic.

Whenever we keep going and do not live according to the rhythm laid out for all of God’s creatures, we break.  Even machinery needs a break.  Sometimes I find it more than ironic that we treat our cars and vehicles with the regular maintenance and care that we don’t even extend to ourselves.  We care for our cars because we don’t want to experience a breakdown on the highway.  Yet, much more important is the care of our souls and our bodies.  Without regular intervals of work and rest in a consistent rhythmic pattern, we breakdown, burnout, and, like little children who have missed a nap, we have epic meltdowns of anger, frustration, and passive-aggressive behavior because we simply ignored God’s 4th command.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me at this point.  Some of you may have had a background filled with legalistic embraces of Sabbath.  No this, and no that, no nothing on Sundays, as if God were some divine curmudgeon who frowns at anything happy on the Sabbath.  To rest means to have a change of pace from regular weekday activity of work.  To rest and enjoy the difference of a Sabbath’s day is avoided by so many people because it brings this question to the forefront of our minds:

Who am I if I’m not working?

Our identities can be so tied to our jobs that we compulsively check our multiple e-mail accounts on a day off; tie ourselves to our smart phones and iPhones on vacation; and, allow work to bleed into our time away from the job.  God wisely placed loving boundaries around us.  But like Adam and Eve who could not be content with enjoying the entire garden, we obsessively pluck the forbidden fruit from the one tree that is off limits.

Work brings money, influence, power, relationships, industry, and a host of good things.  The problem is not work; the problem is that we humans can create an idol of it.  When work and all that comes with it consumes our attention, we are on a one-way road to nowhere.  I’ve heard more than one deathbed confession from dying persons, and I’ve yet to hear anyone wish they had worked more.  Nope, it’s usually something out of rhythm and out of whack – that they let their jobs and their ambitions surrounding work call the shots in life, without stopping to enjoy the vast creation, the gifts of God, and the emotional wealth that can come from relationships.

Because we aren’t sure who we are if we’re not working, we just keep working.  If we feel bad, we work harder.  If things are tough at home, we just put more hours in at work.  If we need more money, we pick up a part-time job.  When work becomes the catch-all answer to our many problems, it has become our god and we will worship at the altar of money and activity… until we can learn to stop and rest.

It’s just one day out of seven.  Just 1/7th of your life is needed to change the pace and allow a divine rhythm into your existence.  The temptation, however, is to take a day off from work so that you can do other work at home.  So, the challenge, for many people, is to allow the weekend to be one day where you get stuff done, and another day to truly rest.

This is not easy.  Right now I work six days a week.  And, sometimes, I work a few hours on my “day off.”  I’m speaking to myself as much as I’m speaking to you.  Yet, no one bats an eye at my constant working (well, except maybe my wife!).  In fact, people seem impressed when we work all the time.  We don’t want others thinking us lazy.  We want others to think well of us, and give us accolades for our hard work.  What gets lost in it all is God’s grace to us through rest.

79240-christian2bcontemplation

God desires us to enjoy Him, and not avoid Him.  He wants us to be still and know that He is God.  He longs for us to connect with Him.  This will only happen if we plan and prepare for it.  Sabbath doesn’t just happen; we must engage it.  Maybe we need to put God on our calendars.  Make an appointment with Him like we would anyone else.  Put the same kind of effort into making a date with God that you would with the people you care most about.  Perhaps the best thing you could do is go play a round of golf (if golf isn’t your idol!); go to the beach; or, take a nap.

The thing about Sabbath is that, when we get down to actually practicing it, we find that the world didn’t stop.  When we return to work, the earth is still spinning on its axis.  The company didn’t burn down in our absence.  Life doesn’t cease when we submit to a Sabbath rest; it’s just that we cease from participating in it for a short time.  Our delusions of grandeur dissipate and disappear when we finally come around to consistently obeying a Sabbath rest.

Work is noble.  But there is nothing noble about working without rest.  We are still human beings when we aren’t making money, and still valuable when we don’t have jobs.  Folks in healthcare facilities aren’t any less important because they aren’t holding down a job.  Work doesn’t define us – God’s image within us does.

It isn’t likely that we’ll ever see a George Jetson 3-hour workday, and that’s probably a good thing.  Work’s inherent goodness can only be truly appreciated when we plan and prepare to live and enjoy a Sabbath’s day rest.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – The Same Spirit

20180522_133138

“The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does.  Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Now we each drink from that same Spirit.” (Contemporary English Version)

As you well know, it’s easy to take things for granted.  For instance, we don’t typically think too much about our toes… until we stub them, drop something on them, break them, or need a podiatrist to operate on them.  Then, we not only know they’re still there, but our entire body (along with the mind and emotions!) feels the need to give a lot of attention to lowest end of our body that enables us to stand and walk without thinking much about it.

The body is an apt metaphor for how to think about humanity and its various systems and institutions.  We might see the face of any church or organization, but there are scads of people behind the scenes doing all kinds of good work.  For example, the golfing profession understands the importance of caddies; lawyers know the need of paralegal persons; healthcare facilities and organizations rely not only on nurses and social workers, but also on cooks and housekeepers; schools need the coordination of teachers, parents, students, volunteers, and the entire community to effectively realize the education of children.

Also, as you well know, it’s easy to take for granted services we receive… until we don’t receive them, or in a way to our liking.  Then, we pay attention.  We want action and resolution.  We want our food now and to our exact specifications.  Sometimes we might even forget that we are dealing with people, not cogs in a machine or parts in a system.  Millions of people labor every single day, sometimes even seven days a week, just to make ends meet and provide for their families.  When we neglect to understand this, or see it right in front of our eyes, we have done our fellow human beings a disservice.

It’s also awfully easy to forget how extremely radical the Apostle Paul’s words were for 1st century folks, especially in religious circles.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew community was God’s people.  If you wanted to worship the one true God, you came to Jerusalem and learned from Jews.  But Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit changed things in such a profound and organic way that the world would never be the same again.

It was firmly established by the early church, and preached with fervor and flavor by Paul, that there would not be a separate Jewish church and Gentile church.  They have become one Body of Christ through the redemptive events of Jesus.  Both Jews and Gentiles have the same Spirit – not different Spirits for each group.  Jesus Christ did not die so that people could be fragmented from each other; He was crucified to end once for all the segregation, discrimination, and ostentation of one group of people above another.

The cross was the ultimate radical act of justice against the powers of this dark world that seek to rank people according to their relative importance and worth.

The power of the resurrection is the energy of God raising Christ from death to triumph over the realm and system of evil throughout the earth.  All kinds of people everywhere are to rise with Christ in a great demonstration of God’s power to subvert the status quo of discriminatory racism, extreme individualism, gender inequality, social and economic class-ism, and any kind of “ism” which places one group of people in subjection to another in misguided notions of superiority.

The church is to be a community of redeemed people that reflects the diversity of God’s big world.  No two groups of people could have been more different than Middle-Eastern Jews and Greek Gentiles.  Yet, Paul insisted that they together, not separate, make up the one Body of Christ.  It isn’t easy listening to another group of people who think and act differently than you and me.  But listen we must.  And respond we must.  It is our responsibility as believers in the way of Christ.

“God put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable. He did this to make all parts of the body work together smoothly, with each part caring about the others. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy. Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body.” (Contemporary English Version)

There is no ability to look down your nose on another person if you are already kneeling on the ground in humble prayer at the foot of the cross.  There is only the chance to look up.  There is even the opportunity to allow someone less privileged and fortunate to assist you.  Yes, we all need one another – even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.  It isn’t our job to colonize other people’s culture and society to make it more like our own.  It is our duty to share the Gospel, make room at the Table, extend love in the Name of Jesus, and work together as the one people of God, formed by the Spirit.

Almighty God of all creation, I understand that we don’t struggle merely against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities – those institutions and systems that keep separations alive by perpetuating the lie that some members of the family are inferior and others superior.  Create in us a new mind and heart that will enable us to see brothers and sisters in the faces of those divided by human constructed categories of power disparities.  Give us the grace and strength to rid ourselves of stereotypes that oppress some of us while providing entitlements to others.  Help us to create a Church and nation that embraces the hopes and fears of oppressed people everywhere we live, as well as those around the world.  Heal your family, God, and make us one with you, in union with our Lord Jesus, and empowered by your Holy Spirit.  Amen.