December 15, 2012

On Christmas and chaos...

   Since I don't have to preach tomorrow, or this Christmas, I'll throw this one up here too, which touches on the same general theme - how we face and handle tragedy, especially in this season; if any of my preacher friends wants to use, quote, edit. etc. feel free. If I were preaching tomorrow, I think this is the direction I would go - the Christmas story isn't supposed to be easy - the reality is rooted in a story of oppression, fear, and violence (think of Herod's slaughter of the children), but the Good News is that God is present in the midst of it all...

Byron First UMC
24 December 2010
Christmas Eve Service

   Did you ever stop to think about what it would have been like to have been there? Imagine, if you had a time machine and could go back to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, what would you expect to see?

   I think in our minds, at least in my mind, we have this picture of a very peaceful, quiet, pleasant place. Sure, Jesus was placed in a manger, because there was no room in the inn, but in your mind isn’t it a very clean, warm, inviting manger – something like a nice little cottage with a straw floor, and a few animals calmly sitting outside? And what sounds to you hear? Is it a “Silent Night, Holy Night” free from even the sounds of a crying newborn?

   Did Jesus really enter this world in this very ideal serene setting? Or was it possibly a little more complicated. See, when we sing those hymns about silent nights and babies who don’t cry, we are singing about something that is in the imagination of a particular hymn writer, and it may have happened that way, but what’s interesting to me is that there is nothing in Scripture to support that view. 

   Luke’s Gospel doesn’t say that the newborn Jesus didn’t cry or even that the night was particularly peaceful.

   In fact if we really stop to consider what was going on – the small, somewhat rural town found itself suddenly overwhelmed with visitors on account of a census being ordered by the Roman government – it would suggest that Bethlehem may have been anything but peaceful. Imagine if everyone with family ties to Byron – going back 100 years or more, suddenly showed up here tonight – if our town was suddenly flooded with visitors from all over the country. Now I know some of you might actually be getting a taste of that tonight – but what if it wasn’t just the kids and grandkids back in town, but all your nieces and nephews, second and third cousins, people you didn’t even know you are related to, who show up at your door looking for a place to stay? I think that night in Bethlehem must have been this incredibly strange mix of a big party – a great family reunion where everyone is getting together and reconnecting, but also a time of political resentment, maybe even anger at the Roman government for mandating this census, plus just a whole bunch of chaos and confusion as everyone tries to figure out where they can sleep and what they need to have in order for the census. On the night Jesus was born, Bethlehem was in all likelihood a busy, bustling, noisy place.

   And then add into the mix this young couple, in a place far from home, expecting their first child – conceived under very unusual circumstances. Even with that assurance that God was going to see them through, they must have been had that same nervousness and worry that all first-time parents get. Surely they felt that same excitement and fear when Mary’s water broke, “Ready or not, the baby’s on his way.” There is nothing to suggest that Mary didn’t feel that same labor pains every woman who gives birth experiences (and keep in mind this is well before the time of epidurals and medication to ease the mother’s discomfort). There is nothing to suggest that Jesus’ birth wasn’t accompanied by the very same blood, sweat, and tears that accompany every labor and delivery. Not to mention that important detail that the baby Jesus was placed in a manger – in the Greek the word is used to describe a feeding trough or animal stall – which certainly wouldn’t have been the most hygienic place to have a newborn, especially if there were animals around. But then, Messiah or not, even with all the confusion and unexpected moments that night brought, Mary and Joseph must have felt overwhelmed with love, and gratitude, and that happiness that goes beyond words, when they held that precious little baby.

   See, what I think it important for us to acknowledge and remember this night is that Jesus was born into our world, into the real world – not one that is sanitized and perfect, but one that is chaotic and messy, where there are tears of joy and tears of sorrow, where people get emotional – some are angry at the government, while others are just grateful to hold a healthy and happy baby. There were certainly some unusual elements surrounding Jesus’ birth that night – the appearance of angels and shepherds sent to bare witness – but I think we have to be very careful about making this story too idyllic, too picture-perfect, too other-worldly, because it undermines the very nature, and purpose, and message of Jesus Christ – God’s Son sent into our imperfect world so that we might know God’s perfect love.

   In the midst of the pain and the fear and the hope and the joy and the blood and the sweat, in a small, almost insignificant town called Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago – God entered our world in whole new way, and because of it we are forever changed.

   And what about our lives? Do you find yourself hoping this year will be a picture perfect Christmas, where the food is impeccable and everyone gets exactly what they dreamed of? Do you want that fairly-tale Christmas where no one gets sick, no one argues or gets upset, and there isn’t a worry in the world?

   Maybe that will happen, but as much as I hate to break it to you, most of us aren’t going to see it – we’ll have a good Christmas, but it won’t be perfect.

   It won’t be perfect, because we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in world where there is still a lot of darkness – too much fear, too much violence, too much pain, sickness, uncertainty and sorrow. But what we also know is that the light of Christ, when entered the world so long ago, still shines today. 

   Even in our brokenness, even in our doubts, our disappointments, our tears, even in our imperfect celebrations of Christmas, God still reigns – God continues to be present, and God continues to be at world in the world.

   Sometimes we don’t see it – keep in mind there was a whole town completely unaware of Jesus’ birth, except for Mary and Joseph and a few simple shepherds, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Sometimes God’s greatest works, God’s greatest wonders happen so subtlety, so quietly, that the majority of people miss out on the miracle even when it is in their midst.

   Christmas isn’t God’s promise that everything is going to be perfect. Christmas isn’t God’s promise that our every wish will come true.

   Christmas is the revelation and the declaration of the depth of God’s love for us. Christmas is the proclamation that “God so loves the world, that he sent his Son,” a son who entered the world with the absolute vulnerability of a newborn child – entered into a world that is messy and violent, painful and sad, to show us a new way of living, a new way of understanding God, a new way of relating to God. 

   A son foretold many years before by the prophet Isaiah, who told us he shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

   God is with us – that is the great Good News of this night – God is with us – in our joy and in our sorrow, in our hopes and in our disappointments. That is the message all the world needs to know, needs to hear.

   To everyone who is struggling with the hardships of this Michigan economy – to everyone who has been laid off – God is with you.

   To those who are filled with gratitude that God has helped you make it through another year – God is with you.

   To men and women dealing with illness – to those waiting for a diagnosis, and those celebrating this day from a hospital bed – God is with you.

   To parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who understand that joy Mary and Joseph felt on a night like this – God is with you.

   To parents who can’t understand some of the decisions their children have made – to those who want to step in and fix everything, but know they can’t – God is with you.

   To children whose hearts are simply filled with the wonder and the magic of this season – God is with you.

   To those who feel distant from God, or are angry with God – to those who feel like they are just going through the motions and to those who can’t even come inside the doors of a church even on a night like this – God is with you.

   To those who are feeling alive and on fire for God, who feel overwhelmed at all God has done, and eagerly anticipate what God is going to do in 2011 (and who probably don’t need to hear me tell you this) – God is with you.

   To everyone who is feeling the sting of loneliness and isolation – to those who yearn to be in relationship, but have yet to find that special someone, and to those who are missing loved ones tonight – God is with you.

   God is with you – God is with us – no matter what we are thinking and feeling and dealing with this night. When God came into the world the heavenly angels sang, and the lowly shepherds came out to see – God’s claim is on all of us: rich and poor, foolish and wise, people who’ve got it all figured out and the ones that don’t have a clue. God is with us. God entered into this world so that we might know his love has no end.

   God’s light still shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. Tonight isn’t a night to cover up the pain and the sorrow and the hurt we bring with us, we don’t need to pretend like it isn’t there. Tonight is a night to celebrate the fact that God is greater than all that stuff the world throws at us. Jesus was born into the messy, uncertain world so that we might know God’s unfathomable love, and he even endures the pain of the cross for us – the story that begins with blood, sweat and tears, ends there too… except that isn’t the end of the story. Death isn’t God’s final word. The story concludes with resurrection – of live beyond death that is only possible by God’s power and grace – a witness that 

   God’s will is always on the side of healing and wholeness, of forgiveness and new life.

   And God wants us to be a part of that. “God is with us” – that part of the covenant, the promise, has already been established, the question for us is, are we with God? Are we ready to invite God into the messiness of our lives and let Christ be born in us? Are we ready to receive the King of Kings who was born this night and start living as citizens of his kingdom? Are we ready to follow his commands to “Love the Lord your God with all our heart, and mind, and soul and strength,” and love our neighbors every bit as much as we love ourselves? Are we ready to forgive – not just 7 times, but 70 times 7, are we ready to turn the other cheek, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Are we ready to not only receive the holy light of God’s joy, peace, hope and love, and not just keep it for ourselves – not just hide it under a bushel, but let it shine for all the world to see, and share it so that others might live in the light, too?

   Sometimes around this time of year, you’ll hear that old John Lennon song on the radio – the one that begins, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done, another year older, and new one just begun.” In that lyric there is a cynical edge that begs the question for all who follow Jesus – how has Christmas changed you? Has the birth of the Christ child made any difference in your life? And have you done anything to help make the world more Christ-like through your love, action, prayer and service?

   Maybe as you look back over the past year you can see those places where you have fallen short, where you haven’t lived the Christ-like life God has called you to live. If so, there are three things you need to know – 1. God is still with you, God hasn’t given up on you; 2. God forgives you; and 3. 

   Today is a new day, may it be a day and the start of a whole new year where we are ready to receive and celebrate the King.

   No matter what you might find wrapped under the Christmas tree tomorrow morning, know this one thing – you have already been given the most precious gift ever – God’s Son, given for you so that you might know God’s love and live in God’s grace. And this isn’t just a present for you to keep for yourself – the light of Christ is now yours to chare with the entire world – not just once a year, but each and every day.

   God is with us, God has done some amazing things for us, and God’s work isn’t finished. May we life as Christmas people this and every day, rejoicing in the God’s power and presence in all that life brings. Amen.

Thoughts on suffering and pain...

 This is from a sermon I preached in January of 2011 at Byron First UMC; it doesn't specifically address the events of the school shooting yesterday, but maybe it can provide some insight into at least some of my basic ideas around why do bad things happen to good people. Though I don't specifically cite the book, I believe Adam Hamilton's book, Why?: Making Sense of God's Will, helped undergird some of my thinking here.

   This is one of those sermons that seemed a lot easier about three months ago when I came up with a name, title and theme for it, than it was this week when I sat down to really write and figure out what I wanted to say. The big fancy name for what we are going to be talking about this morning is theodicy – it’s the question of if God is good, and just, and loving, and all powerful, then why do bad things happen? It’s a big question, a tough question, a real question; a question we all ask ourselves at some points in our lives – so let me just give the disclaimer right here – I’m not going to answer that question. People of faith, far wiser and smarter than me have been preaching, writing, and wrestling with this same question for thousands of years, and yet we are still asking the question.

   So this morning I’m just going to offer a few of my thoughts, some of what I get out of Scripture when this topic comes up, and there might be a few things you connect with, there might be a few things you disagree with, but I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit will be at work this morning, and help us to mature into a faith that can sustain us even in the midst of crisis, even when the times get tough.
And the crisis will come, it always does – sometimes it’s in the big, national, or global news-worthy events that capture our attention and cause us to wrestle – last weeks violent shooting that claimed the lives of six including that 9-year-old girl born on another tragic day, September 11, 2001; last year’s earthquake in Haiti that devastated an already struggling nation. Sometimes it’s much more personal – the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, an unexpected diagnosis of a serious disease.

   And what happens when those hard times come? What do we say, what do we think, how do we try to make sense of it all?

   Sometimes we turn to what it sometimes called “folk theology” – we use these little, often repeated statements that seem really well intentioned, but sometimes aren’t all that helpful. Here’s a couple I know I’ve used, and maybe you have, too:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It must have been the will of God.”

   Like I said, I know they are well intentioned, and I understand and agree with the theology behind them, what they are really trying to say is that no matter what God is still in control. But here’s the problem with them, when you are in deep, deep pain, when you are in the midst of grief, your mind isn’t really able to comprehend that larger picture, and sometimes, some people get a very different message.

   Sometimes when you hear, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It must have been the will of God” when you are still recovering from a miscarriage, when you are standing beside the coffin of a child or a young adult, when you are wondering what happened to that marriage that seemed so perfect years ago, when you are wondering if you’ll live to see your next birthday, what you really hear is “God made this happen.”

   And that is something I completely and utterly reject. I don’t believe God hijacks airplanes and flies them into office buildings, and I don’t believe that God puts the keys into the hands of the drunk driver. I don’t believe that God sends famine into one part of the world so that people will starve, and I don’t believe that God causes floods in another so that people will drown. I don’t believe that God gives little kids leukemia, just to prove some kind of point, and I don’t believe that God causes strokes and heart-attacks just as people are beginning to enjoy their “golden years.”

   To say that God makes any of these things happen to serve some greater purpose, I believe brings you into some very dangerous ground; in the field of ethics it’s called utilitarianism – it’s the idea that the ends justify the means, and when you really get down to it, it almost makes God into this uncaring, calculating monster, who believes people are expendable. And that just isn’t the picture I get of God when I read in Genesis how he formed us in his image and breathed life into us; it’s not the picture I get from Psalm 139, where it says of God, “you formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”; it’s not the picture I get when Jesus tells us in Luke 12 that God not only keeps watch over the sparrows, but us too, that even the hairs on our heads are counted.

   I believe God knows us and loves us – love us so much that he sent his Son to walk among us, so that we might have eternal life, which I think means not just life after death, but also a richer, fuller, more meaningful life here and now. But that doesn’t mean that life is going to be perfect or pain-free, and sometimes I think we fail to really acknowledge this part of the story. 

   In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “In the world you will have distress” but sometimes it seems to me that, especially in the church, we feel the need to sugarcoat our pain, cover up, and deny our hurt. And the problem is, that isn’t really biblical. Yes, in the same verse from John, Jesus also says, “Take courage for I have conquered the world”, and in Philippians it says “Rejoice in the Lord always” but the Bible is also filled with long, painfully honest, passages about anger and sorrow and all those feelings we’ve felt when we’ve been down and out and our hearts our simply crying out to God for help. Listen to what it says in Psalm 69,
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

   This is no, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”, this is “God, I’ve had it up to here, I’m stuck in the muck, I’ve cried my eyes out, I’m looking for you but have a hard time seeing you, I need your help.”

   We live in a world that has pain and sorrow. In some instances it’s just the natural order of creation – God formed the earth with a specific geology – the earth’s outer crust – the land we live on, basically floats on a mantle of liquid iron. The very way it’s been constructed it’s what makes is possible for life to be sustained here, it’s also why there are so many examples of breathtaking beauty – mountains, geysers, and natural hot springs; but it also means there are things like volcanoes and earthquakes that bring natural disasters. God created the universe to follow certain specific laws of physics – like gravity, friction and force – so when I’m driving too fast and my car hits a patch of ice – someone is going to get hurt, or something is going to get banged up pretty badly. That’s not God punishing us, that’s the universe simply following the rules God put into place. Biologically, we are beautifully made by God, be we are also fragile – viruses, bacteria, subtle differences in our DNA, and simply the process of aging, mean that we get sick and we die, sometimes far too soon. It is tragic and we have every right to mourn and cry, just as Jesus did when his friend Lazarus died, but it doesn’t mean that God wanted it to happen. The reality is, sometimes we are just at the wrong place at the wrong time; it can be sad, it can be shocking, it can be disappointing, it can make us angry, but I don’t believe it’s about God trying to punish us, or teach us some kind of a lesson.

   Now there is another source of pain and suffering that needs to be addressed, and that is those that aren’t attributable to natural events, but to human choices. God has given us free will, and that is a grand and glorious thing. God has given us reason, intelligence, creativity. God gave us the ability to think for ourselves, to make our own choices – we aren’t robots, we aren’t helpless puppets dangling from a string, and I believe that is a good thing. I think God knew what he was doing when he made us this way. Because of free will great works of art, poetry, and music have been created to glorify God; because of free will, doctors have found new ways to treat disease, and scientists have helped open our eyes to the wonder of God’s creation. But we all know the down side too – free will means there is room for wrong choices, ones that bring suffering on ourselves, and others.

   A man decides that he can beat a train to a crossing… and he misses by only one second, but he misses.

   A teenager on a dare decides to try drugs and over time becomes an addict… and he suffers and his family and friends suffer and our world suffers.

   A young man, wrestling we inner demons we still don’t understand decides to make some sort of statement by wildly firing into a crowd intent of killing a respected congresswoman.

   Free will, gives us the opportunity to turn toward God, or turn away from God, to choose the darkness to enter into sin. We can choose to love or choose to hate, and our choices have serious consequences. And that’s really the story of Bible, too. Time and time again it’s a series of story of God speaking to his people, making his will known, the people turning away, and God reaching out to restore them, to fix the mess we’ve made.

   And it’s really important that you hear this point before any of you start writing letters to the Bishop, I believe that God is still intimately involved with his creation, and I know God sometimes enters in and even makes miracles happen, but sometimes in the face of suffering – caused by people or caused by natural events – God’s greatest gift is simply making his presence known.

   In today’s reading from John we are told something really important about the nature of God through Jesus. Earlier in the chapter Jesus gets word that Lazarus, a close friend, and brother to Mary and Martha is very ill. Jesus stays where is a preaching and teaching for another two days, before going to see Lazarus, and on the way there, Jesus informs his disciples that Lazarus has died. Martha meets Jesus on the road coming into Bethany; they talk about Lazarus’ death, how Jesus might have prevented it, and how he is the resurrection and the life. Martha confesses her faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He then meets with Mary, and listen again to what happens:

   “When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’”

   In those few verses there is a lot that is happening that I believe is really important. First Mary goes to Jesus with total honesty – speaking with grief and maybe even a little anger, she says, “You could have changed this.” But notice this, Jesus doesn’t get angry or defensive; I believe God welcomes our honesty, even if it means shaking our fist at God. Then notice what happens next: Jesus weeps. I believe what we have here is a picture of Jesus’ humanity and the depth of God’s love for us.

   William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, former chaplain at Yale University, lost his son in a accident. At the funeral, the minister was conducting the ceremony and made some feeble statement about the boy’s death being God’s will. Before he could finish, Coffin stoop up and yelled at the preacher, “The hell it was! It wasn’t God’s will at all. When my son died, God was the first one who cried!”

   In retelling the story Tony Campolo says, “We always ask the question, ‘Where is God?’ when troubles come our way. Like William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther also lost a son. His wife, Katie, shouted at him, ‘Where was God when our son died?’

   “Martin Luther answered, ‘The same place He was when His Son died. He was there watching and weeping!”

   When bad things happen, it is natural to ask that question, why did God let this happen? But it’s not the real question we need to be asking, the real question is, “Where is God in all of this?” And I believe the answer is, “Right here beside us, weeping with us.”

   There’s more to the story, of course. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away and he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb. All this happens, Jesus explains, so that God might be glorified. In that action is not only the source of our ultimate hope as Christians, the God has power over death, and one day we will all be raised by the grace of God through Christ Jesus, but I think there is something more. I think there is a message in there that even when bad things happen, redemption is possible. And while I don’t think God causes bad things to happen, I believe God can enter into our pain, our suffering, our loss, and help us to grow, and makes new life possible, and I also believe we all have an opportunity to play a part in that redemption and restoration.
The most obvious example of that this morning is in our commissioning of our Volunteers in Mission team – year after year – they have worked, given of their time, talent and resources, to bring hope and healing to people who are struggling.

   A few years ago I came across this cartoon, in the first panel two men are talking and the first one says, “I’ve always wanted to ask God why he allows so much war, why kids go hungry at night, why so many people don’t have a home.” In the next panel the second man says, “Well why don’t you? Ask him in prayer.” In the third panel, the first guy speaks again and simply says, “Because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same thing.”

   In Genesis, in part of the story of creation, God says that we, as his people, made in his image have dominion over the earth. In other words, we’re responsible for what goes on here, we’re responsible for taking care of each other. We can ask God why, we can cry and be angry, and it’s entirely appropriate to do so, but at some point we’ve also got to start trusting in God’s will, seeking his wisdom, council and strength, and recommit ourselves to simply serve him. Instead of sitting around cursing the darkness, we need to make ourselves available to help carry his light into the darkness.

   Jesus says, “In this world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” That is the Good News. May we carry it in our hearts all our days. Amen.

December 9, 2012

December already?

I knew I was behind, but had no idea that it's almost been a full month since my last post. Here's a few highlights of what what I've been reading and thinking about of late...

Donald Miller: What's the Danger in Categorizing People?

Leonard Sweet: Is the church afraid of right-brained people?

Adam Walker Cleveland has a great post of contextual ministry and how many congregations operate in ways apart from the community they serve. Check it out: Contextual Ministry and the Cultural Commute to Church.

Semi-related, Fred Clark reflects on the recent case where a judge in Oklahoma sentenced a man to mandatory church attendance, and asks the question do we really want out churches to become places of "punishment"? With friends like Caesar, the church doesn't need enemies. (Also from Fred Clark, check out The all-or-nothing lie of fundamentalist Christianity, Part 1 and Part 2).

At the same time, in the reach for cultural relevance, the church can go too far. I'd personally have to draw the line at congregations offering weapons training based on my partiality to passages like Matthew 26:52 where Jesus says, "All those who use the sword will die by the sword," but I also am well aware that there are plenty of people who can proof-text in the other direction to justify a commitment to guns and Jesus.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary: The calm in the storm.

Michael Hyatt: The Gift of Today.

Behance: How Rejection Breeds Creativity.

Seth Godin makes a great cast that non-profits have a charter to be innovators, because they don't have investors expecting a financial return, they should be free to take more risks. Unfortunately I don't see this argument being accepted too widely in the church, because there the givers do expect gratification (often immediate) that relates to their own comfort and well-being. Not everyone, but most, have an expectation to the maintenance of the status quo instead of funding innovative (and potentially risky) endeavors to reach new populations (especially if those populations are significantly different demographically).

The Atlantic: Rich People Who Don't Understand Marginal Tax Rates.

Fast Company lists their favorite business books of 2012. On the top of their list is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, which I've been meaning to read.

Beautiful images from NASA of Earth at night (of course the problem is that these images also show MASSIVE light pollution which is why we can't see the stars nearly as well).

New music from the Avett Brothers, from their latest album, The Carpenter: