Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thoughts on Charleston

I, like so many others, have been heart broken by the heartbreak in Charleston.  Another mass murder.  Another issue of racial divide.  Families devastated.  Wives left without husbands.  Husbands left without wives.  Children left without parents.  A church and a city suffering.  My heart has been heavy and I am hours away from the suffering.  I can only imagine what those directly impacted by what happened are going through. 

We live in a very broken world.  In the Bible, the Apostle Paul (in Romans 8) describes this world all of creation to be groaning as in the “pains of childbirth.”  I’ve watched each of my four kids be born.  My wife was in labor at least 12 hours for each of our four children and I saw the pains of childbirth.  I saw the pain she was in, the exhaustion, the agony, the relentless contractions that, when they hit, just took over her entire body.  As a husband, it was such a helpless feeling because there was nothing I could do except just be there for her so she didn’t have to go through it alone.  So, I saw the pain and the tears and the utter exhaustion she went through during childbirth and the Bible speaks of that it speaks of all creation being in the same type of pain and it sheds the same tears and it suffers the same exhaustion and it cries out for relief because we are in a world that has been damaged and broken by sin. 

And, many of you have probably experienced this type of pain and there are no easy answers for the suffering and hurt that many of us have experienced that those at Emanuel have experienced.  The truth is that Christianity can’t always be reduced to a tweet or a Facebook status or a blog post.  Horrible things happen.  We suffer.  We know people who suffer.  And, we don’t always know how to respond to everything that comes our way in life with a simple slogan.

What many in the Christian faith have come to understand is that our message is not that Christians don’t suffer.  It’s unfortunate that many tend to paint the picture that if you give your life to Jesus, life will be fantastic.  There’s no guarantee of that.  Just look at the Apostle Paul’s life a man who experienced a dramatic conversion (Acts 9) and who also experienced incomprehensible suffering (2 Corinthians 11:23 – 30).  So, the message of Christianity is not that Christians don’t suffer.   The message of Christianity is greater because our message is that we have a victorious Savior!  A Savior who stepped in to our suffering a Savior who hurts when we hurt who cries when we cry a Savior who cares what we’re going through and He grieves with us. 

I’ve been going through a study on the book of Daniel the past two months and felt led to simply share a prayer that Daniel prayed in chapter 9.  Daniel lived in a culture that was anything but Christian.  He lived in a pagan culture, a culture driven by materialism and power and lust.  He and many of his countrymen experienced suffering (Daniel 3 and 6).  He experienced prejudice (Daniel 3 and 6).  He experienced betrayal (Daniel 6).  He also felt an overwhelming burden for his nation and countrymen.  And, his prayer in Daniel 9 was birthed out of that passion.  It’s interesting to note that he didn’t point fingers or place blame.  He started with himself and used the term “we” or “us” when talking about sin and rebellion.  For any change to ever take place the finger has to be pointed at our own heart first and we must allow God to expose our own pride, our own rebellion, or own sinfulness.  We are always safe with God.  He exposes us never to tear us down but always to build us up in to the people He has called us to be. 

If you feel so led, pray these portions of Scripture taken from Daniel 9.  This is not his entire prayer, but only portions of it that I thought may apply to where we are at as a country right now.  But, the greater question to ask is “Where am I at as a person right now?”  If a finger is pointed, we must point it at ourselves first and allow God to do His work in your life.

4“O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your covenant and keep your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and obey your commands.  But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke on your authority to all the people of the land.
“Lord, you are in the right; but as you see, our faces are covered with shame.

But the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him. 13Yet we have refused to seek mercy from the Lord our God by turning from our sins and recognizing His truth. 17 “O our God, hear your servant’s prayer! Listen as I plead. For your own sake, Lord, smile again on your desolate sanctuary. 18 “O my God, lean down and listen to me. Open your eyes and see our despair. See how your city—the city that bears your name—lies in ruins. We make this plea, not because we deserve help, but because of your mercy. 19 “O Lord, hear. O Lord, forgive. O Lord, listen and act! For your own sake, do not delay.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Year Has Gone By

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Biblical story of Abraham but it starts out like this in Genesis 12:1 “God told Abram: ‘Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.”  Leave, say good-bye too, depart, and go away from “your country, your family, and your father’s home to a land I will show you.”

For my family and I, June 8th was the one-year anniversary of us leaving IN.  June 30th is my first day at Grace Community Church in MD, but June 8th was my last official day at Grace Community Church in IN.  Between you and me, that was a hard day. Carol and I truly love the staff and the people of the church, but I knew that my passions and direction in ministry were no longer fitting withing the church’s.  It was time to leave.  Carol and I knew that for sure. But, we certainly weren’t looking forward to leaving because there were so many people that we were going to miss.  Our entire family was forged in the furnaces of Goshen, IN.  We developed a history with many people.  We had been through births and deaths, highs and lows, we rejoiced and we mourned with people for 12 years.  We had a house we loved and it was probably 3 projects away from being the house we had always dreamed it could be.  We had 2 acres of land, a John Deere tractor that I rode with pride, and a backyard full of memories.  And, so saying good-bye to our home, our friends, co-workers, our ministry, people we invested in and our small group whom we loved it really was difficult.

But, one of the most difficult things on that June 8th day was turn in my church key.  That happened in the quietness of an empty building.  We had left the church, said all of our good-byes, wiped away our tears, and then we went out for lunch.  We came back the church a couple of hours later because there were still a few things left in my office that I needed to grab. The building was empty peaceful. Carol and the kids were in the van and I was all alone.  Before I left, I knew I had to turn in my key. 

I shed a lot of tears that day, but surprisingly enough, turning in my key caused me to shed the most tears.  I stood at our receptionist’s desk with my key in hand for minutes that seemed like hours.  I could not lay it down.  I know that may sound strange because it’s not like I had some special attachment to the key itself but I think it was so difficult for me because of what that key represented.  Not everyone had a church key.  I was one of the few. So, in a sense, I was special. It represented who I was as a pastor.  Part of my identity was wrapped up in that little key.  It represented my livelihood.  This key is how I paid the bills.  It provided food, shelter, and security for my family.  It represented the place where our family was established.  It represented 12 years worth of relationships with people I loved.  It represented everything that was near and dear to me.  So, that key was a whole lot more than a key it was my country, my people, my father’s household and God was saying “Lay it down.  Leave it behind.  Say good-bye.” 
So, I think to some small degree, I was able to experience what Abraham experienced when God told him to lay down the only place he had ever known simply because God had a new place to show him.  “Leave everything and go to a land I will show you.”

But, what becomes clearly evident as you read the story of Abraham’s journey is that God had a whole lot more in mind than just showing him a piece of property. 

Genesis 12:4 tells us that Abraham left and, because he did, he saw things he never would have seen had he stayed.  If you decide to read Abraham’s journey in Genesis 12 – 25, you’ll discover that God showed Abraham His faithfulness to him even in the midst of his mistakes.  He showed him His grace (Genesis 12).  God showed Abraham that His faithfulness is not based on our faithfulness (Genesis 15) God showed Abraham circumcision (Genesis 17).  I’m not so sure he was happy about that one.  I could imagine Abraham saying, “Come on.  Noah got a rainbow and I get this!”  But, circumcision was God’s ways of saying, “You are marked as mine!  And, because you’re mine, you have promises and rights and access to Me.” God showed Abraham that it’s possible to give birth even if you’re in the nursing home!  He was 100 and his wife was 90 when Isaac was born (Genesis 21).  God showed Abraham that He will provide a sacrifice (Genesis 22) and gave a glimpse of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us.  We could go on and on, but the point is, I’m not so sure God called Abraham to leave everything he had ever known simply because he wanted to show him a piece of property.  God had so much more in mind.  But, Abraham would never have seen it had he stayed had he not laid down his key.

And, again, I think to some small degree, this is what’s it’s been like for me the past year.  God has shown me so much.  In my mistakes, He has shown me His grace and His mercy.  When I lacked faith, He has shown me His faithfulness.  He has shown unspeakable generosity to my family.  He has answered numerous prayers and shown me how to trust.  He has not answered numerous prayers as I would have liked and shown me how to trust.  He has shown me that more right behavior plus less wrong behavior doesn’t necessarily equal Godliness.  He has shown me that doing more does not mean that I am more that He is more concerned with my character than my accomplishments.  He has shown me my issues and my sinfulness and His forgiveness.  He has shown me that if I rely on Jesus’ finished work on the cross, I no longer have to wonder if God is happy with me or satisfied with me because my identity is no longer anchored in what I do.  It’s anchored in Jesus. He has shown me what it means to persevere, to take a step at a time, and to not quit.  I could go on and on, but the point is whenever I laid that key down and got in that moving truck and made my way East, I am convinced that God wanted to show me a whole lot more than the great state of Maryland. He wanted to prove Himself true to His word:  “He restores my strength. He leads me on right paths to show that He is good.” (Psalm 23:3)  I cannot fully express how grateful I am to have seen Him to be good.  I pray that I will continue to be open to His lead and that my heart will be open to all He wants to reveal and that I will continue to see “the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

So, my encouragement to you is this if there is a “key” in your life that you feel like God is asking you to lay down it’s worth it.  It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.  The key is probably different for all of us.  It could be a relationship or a possession or a position or a want or a grudge or a demand or a sense of entitlement or a desire or a ______________.  Whatever it may be for you, I firmly believe that God is so pleased when we place our trust in Him even when everything else in our life is screaming “Hold on to the key!”  When you lay it down, you receive so much more because when your hands are no longer holding the key, they are open to receive what God has for you.

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