Lament

What’s your favorite 2020 meme so far?

Here’s a typical one: A picture of a beautiful bride in her wedding dress with the caption, “My plans.” Next is a picture of a zombie apocalypse, with the caption “2020.”

One meme said, “2020 is going to be the synonym for “crazy” for the rest of time.

Remember the good old days when there was just an impeachment going on?

We don’t have the resources to process a year like this, do we?

But maybe we do. What if we learned to lament?

Mark Vroegop is a pastor in Indianapolis. Years ago, he and his wife had a child who was stillborn. Even though as a pastor he’d often walked with people through grief, he and his wife weren’t prepared for this.

Mark had always known that a third of the psalms were laments. But in his grief, he began to read the psalms in a new way. In the psalms of lament, and in the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, he discovered a movement. The psalmist turned to God, complained to God, asked God to act, and trusted God for the answer. Mark realized that in the psalms of lament God had provided a way for believers to move from grief to hope. There was no promise of an easy fix, but there were reminders of God’s faithfulness in the hardest of times.

Mark realized that his church, like so many others, hadn’t taught people how to lament. It had skipped over the psalms of lament in favor of the psalms of triumph. He wrote a very helpful book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.

This week Mark released a new book to help Jesus followers begin to deal with our current crisis. It’s called Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation. The Gospel Coalition has made a free PDF copy of this book available at https://tgc-documents.s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/Weep%20With%20Me/Weep_With_Me_EPDF.pdf

So many of us have been searching for something to do to make sense of this crazy year, to reach out to our friends who are hurting, and to make positive changes in the world.

What if God has already given us a path forward?

What if we started by learning to lament?

God’s power, human power

In August of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the speech, “Where do we go from here?” Every person in the country should study it.

But then, we don’t like long speeches, do we? We prefer memes, soundbites, chants, and slogans. We get addicted to the adrenalin that comes from the things that incite our passion. The long, hard, strategic work that actually affects change over time, well, we don’t have the patience for that. 

King reflected on ten years of the SCLC’s work for racial justice across the country.  And in answering, “Where do we go from here?” he affirmed his commitment to non-violence. But at the same time, he challenged ministers and others who reduced the idea of love to a sentiment:

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

“And the other thing is, I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“Let us be dissatisfied, and men will recognize, that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

This Sunday, I’m preaching on the story of the first convert to Christianity in the Book of Acts: a black, sexually-altered man from a foreign country. For all those reasons, the man would have been excluded from Judaism. He was someone Philip would never have met on his own. It took massive intervention by the Holy Spirit to get Philip to seek him out. But when Philip explained the Gospel, the man was changed.

It was through transformations like this that the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transformed the world.

As King said, “Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

The light of the Gospel.

What are we here for?

Why did God put us here?

My guess is that few people today have thought about that, and fewer still would come up with the right answer. Some might say, “Because God loves us,” but most wouldn’t know what to say. Nearly 400 years ago, a group of theologians from England and Scotland answered those questions, “Worship.”

It was the height of the English Civil War, and the theologians wanted to create a tool to teach children about God. The result was the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Its most famous line is the very first: “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Of course, God loves us, but God created us so that we could reflect back to God a bit of God’s own glory, beauty, truth, and love. We’ve come to expect worship to inspire and teach us; we have high expectations of the music and preaching. Over the years, this led churches to divide over questions of music and style; we expected churches to cater to our tastes. But worship is about God, not us. 

If you’re not worshipping, or if you’re worshipping something besides God, you’re missing out on an essential aspect of life; you’re violating your design.

The Bible says that in the early church there was singing, teaching, preaching, and celebration of the Sacraments, but the Bible gives precious few details about what that was like. Much of what we hold dear about worship is of our design. 

But there’s no doubt that God created us for worship.

God commanded his ancient people to go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. He commands us still, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, worship no longer has to be in just one place.

But there’s also no doubt that God created us to worship together.

It’s a joy to come together again this week, still a bit distanced, but together as God intended. 

Forgot their name?

Why is it that we forget someone’s name the moment they’re introduced to us?

In the wake of the racial unrest sweeping the country, many voices have called for the need to listen to each other. But what actually seems to be happening is that we yell at each other instead.

Why is that?

Luke 10 says that an expert in the law once came up to “test” Jesus. He wasn’t asking for a legal opinion or for legal advice; he was trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. He had no interest in learning from Jesus, only in making himself look good.

Luke 10:29 tells us the man wanted to “justify himself.” 

The parable Jesus told the man in response to this self-justification is called “The Good Samaritan.” 

In reading the story of the man who stopped to help someone who was helpless and dying by the side of the road, it’s easy to miss the reason why Jesus told it.

Self-justification is an ancient problem.

We all want to appear knowledgeable, appear smart, appear to be in control. When we’re introduced to someone, we’re more worried about what we look like, what we’ll say next, than in really being present for the other person.   

Forgetting their name is the least of our problems. 

Both, and

In his powerful book, Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson talks about the power of the media to shape our perceptions. On Sunday, March 6, 1965, 600 blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery to protest voter registration practices. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers beat the marchers with clubs as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

When the images of the atrocities were broadcast on TV, white Americans were horrified. Public opinion galvanized against the troopers. When the marchers tried again on March 21st, they were 2000 strong. Along the way, they were joined by people of all races from across the country. When they reached the steps of the capitol, their number had swelled to 50,000.

Watson said that for him, the enduring images of the march were the faces of women, which reflected “fear and faith, hurt and hope; their eyes, focused on changing the reality of life, perhaps not for themselves, but for their children; their lips, prayer for deliverance, not so much from the white state troopers as from a life and future of indignity.”

Then Watson asks, what is the impact of images of “black people burning cars and raiding convenience stores?” Images like those have the power to undo “the purpose, spirit, and progress” peaceful marchers fought for in Selma.

Images have the power to both unite and divide, don’t they? 

Today, we tune into the cable channels and social media platforms that support our point of view. What passes for news are often “canned shouting matches that only deepen people’s entrenched positions.”

Maybe we should turn off our screens and focus on some images from the Bible.

Long ago, Moses asked God, “Show me your glory.”

God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

And what is the “goodness” of God?

God put Moses in the cleft of a rock and put a hand over Moses’ face, so that Moses could only get a glimpse of God’s back. The image of God’s face would have been fatal.

As God passed by, God said in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….”

One might be able to tell where we stand by what channel we tune into, but we can’t manipulate the image of God to our support our point of view.

God is both loving and just.

Maybe the most powerful image of all is the cross, where both the love and justice of God were satisfied.

Liquor stores and sanctuaries

There’s no shortage of Christian advice out there on how to deal with the crisis. Some of the best is from NT Wright, one of most compelling Christian scholars today. His essay in Time last week, adapted from his upcoming book, God and the Pandemic, is worth a read.  https://time.com/5837693/should-churches-reopen-thinking-about-exile/.

Wright says that for the last 300 years in the global west, religion has been reduced to a private matter: “what someone does with their solitude.” Given this assumption, it’s not much of a leap to conclude that worship should have no place in public life. Hence, liquor stores are deemed “essential,” while “ancient, prayer-soaked sanctuaries” are off-limits.

If religion is simply a human construction, a system of thought like philosophy, or a guide for better living like Chicken Soup for the Soul, then churches ought to be on an equal footing with liquor stores. Both are human constructions where you go for escape.

But this Sunday, Christians observe Pentecost, the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the early believers.

If it really happened, and I believe it did, it means that faith cannot be a private matter. The Holy Spirit is in and through everything. People who tell you to “keep your faith to yourself” are proselytizing for their own religion. 

Religion may be a human construction, but the Christian faith is God’s construction.

Sure, many systems of Christian thought have sprung up over the centuries, but the Christian faith is not primarily a religion. Christianity is following the living God who really is loose in the world.

The living God can be found in liquor stores and sanctuaries. Neither will contain him. Tom Wright knows why:   

Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world. A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Christians should therefore celebrate every way in which the living Lord whom they worship in church buildings is out and about, bringing healing and hope far beyond the visible limits of church property.

Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward. Part of the answer to the question, “Where is God in the pandemic?” must be, “Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope.”

Dude Perfect

Their videos have been viewed 11 billion times. Their YouTube channel has 51 million subscribers, making it one of the top ten channels on YouTube

Who are they? Sports stars? Hollywood celebrities? Social media influencers?

They’re five former roommates at Texas A&M who hung out together for Christian fellowship.

About ten years ago they put up a basketball hoop in their backyard and started filming each other making trick shots. Within days, their first video had been seen 200,000 times. They had a dream of taking their newfound passion to a wider online audience, but doing so would mean leaving promising jobs and require an enormous leap of faith. Parents and friends helped them write a business plan and create a professional website. They asked friends to help with their goal of creating a video with a million views, and their friends were happy to help, subscribing to their channel and sharing the video with others.

Did I mention they are followers of Jesus Christ?

Even if you’ve never heard of “Dude Perfect” (In their first video, one of them lined up the camera for a shot and said, “Dude, perfect.”) you’ve likely seen clips of them shooting hoops off skyscrapers. I discovered them this week watching TV with my granddaughters. There’s nothing cerebral about their videos, but they are completely clean.

And their passion, creativity, joy, and love for each other are contagious. 

Many Christians bemoan the media age; some still refuse to go online. No doubt, there is a lot of dark content out there.

This week we mark the Ascension, the day when the risen Jesus returned to God in heaven. If the birth of Jesus was God’s greatest act of God reaching out to humanity, the Ascension was humanity’s greatest act of reaching back to God. In Jesus, humanity was joined to God, and Jesus was no longer limited by time and space. Because of the Ascension, Jesus would now be everywhere in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Because of the Ascension, the infinite passion, joy, creativity, and love of God are available to Christians in every aspect of life, and in every time and place.

There are an infinite number of ways to bring glory to God.

Why should five guys making trick shots have all the fun?

Arlington Lady

Back in 1948, Gladys Vandenberg, the wife of the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, noticed funerals taking place in Arlington National Cemetery with no family, and with only a military chaplain present. She organized her friends to start attending the services, and later formed a group from the Officer’s Wives Club known as the Arlington Ladies. In the years that followed, the other services formed similar groups. Today, every servicemember who is laid to rest at Arlington has someone present to represent the “family” of that branch of service. The Arlington Lady writes each family a note of condolence, from herself and on behalf of all the members of the service.

From 1997 to 1999, I commanded the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC, and for most of the that time, my wife Jana was an Arlington Lady. She didn’t think she could do it at first; she thought the emotional toll would be too great. But she ended up serving one day a month, attending all the Air Force funerals that day, perhaps four or five.

Instead of being something she couldn’t do, it became something she couldn’t miss. Asked to describe the experience, Jana said simply, “It was an honor.”

During the current crisis, funerals have been postponed and loved ones have been laid to rest alone.

There’s something enormously sad and poignant about this.

Jesus weeps at this.

Thank God that Jesus walks with us through this, and that our loved ones rest in his arms.

And because of the resurrection, none of us need ultimately be alone.

How Jesus caught people

I just read the book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Everyone should read this, but you should especially read it if you’re a Christian who understands that sharing your faith is an important part of your life.

Butterfield was a tenured professor at Syracuse University and a leader in LGBTQ causes. She came to faith in spite of the condemnation she’d experienced from church people. 

What started her on her journey was a pastor who lived near the university who responded thoughtfully to a column she had written critical of Christians. This led to a friendship that developed over several years.

During that time, the pastor never even invited her to church.

But he did invite her into his home.

And he was interested in her.

Church can seem complex. Doctrine can be puzzling. Denominational controversies are discouraging. Sharing faith can seem daunting. Sadly, too many Christians can be condemning.

This Sunday, I’m preaching on one of my favorite passages, the beautiful story from John 21 of how the risen Jesus did evangelism. He met his friends where they were working. He made a simple suggestion. He didn’t condemn. He gave them something to eat. 

That’s how Jesus caught people.

Seeing for yourself

I have the same name as the most famous “doubter” in the Bible, Thomas.

Does God cross you off his list if you have doubts?

There’s an old hymn, “To God Be the Glory,” with a verse that says redemption comes to anyone who “truly believes.”

Is that right?

Does salvation depend on the intensity of one’s faith?

Long ago, when the risen Jesus first appeared to the disciples in the upper room, Thomas wasn’t there. As excited as the others were, Thomas still wanted to see for himself. A week later, Thomas got his wish, and Jesus said, “Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believed.”

The truth is, we all would love to see for ourselves.

Jesus wasn’t so much criticizing Thomas for doubting as he was pronouncing a blessing on all of us doubters who will believe without getting to see Jesus in the flesh. 

D.A. Carson has a famous sermon illustration in which he imagines two Hebrew slaves in Egypt the night before the angel of death was to pass over. Both men had put the blood of the lamb over their doors as Moses had ordered. One man doubted, scared to death that he might still lose his firstborn. The other man was supremely confident, saying “Bring it on.”

Carson said, “That night the angel of death swept through the land. Which one lost his son?

“The answer, of course, is neither.

“Death doesn’t pass over them on the ground of the intensity or the clarity of the faith exercised, but on the ground of the blood of the lamb.’