Falling apart at the seams

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked, “Is America falling apart at the seams?” He wondered, for example, why traffic deaths were up in 2020 when the number of miles driven had gone down.

Why were people driving more recklessly? 

Brooks said the evidence of the unraveling of our social fabric is everywhere. People are having more fights on airplanes, drinking more, and having more overdoses.

He speculated that much of the stress is temporary and related to the pandemic: people wouldn’t be punching flight attendants if there weren’t mask rules and a deadly virus to worry about. But then, depression, suicide, and loneliness were major concerns before the pandemic.

This Sunday I’m preaching from Philippians 4, where the Apostle Paul famously said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Paul was under house arrest when he wrote that.

And he’d been beaten, flogged, run out of town, imprisoned, and shipwrecked before that.

And we think Covid lockdowns are confining.

Life wasn’t easy for the folks Paul was writing to either. Being a Jesus follower could get you killed.

Paul was not a contented person by nature. Before his conversion, he passionately persecuted Christians, and now he followed Jesus even more passionately.

Paul said he had “learned to be content.”

The magnitude of the Gospel, what God had done in Jesus Christ, had become the overriding reality in Paul’s life. So much so that he could sing hymns in prison at night with his feet locked in the stocks.

There’s no easy way to learn that kind of contentment.

You have to do more than say you believe and show up for church when you’ve got nothing better to do. You’ve got to worship and study and reflect on the beauty of Christ. You’ve got to do those things so much that they become the default settings of your heart. Then, when you find yourself in a crisis, or wake up in the night with worry, your heart will take you to the one who came to weave us back together.

Everything happens for a reason…right?

At age 35, Kate Bowler was living her best life.

She’d just gotten her dream job as a professor at her alma mater, Duke Divinity School. She had a new baby and a loving husband who happened to be her childhood sweetheart.

That’s when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.  

What made Kate different from every other person who receives a devastating diagnosis is that Kate had spent years researching the history of the Prosperity Gospel for her PhD dissertation. The Prosperity Gospel is a way of understanding the Christian faith that says God wants to shower you with blessings—health, wealth, happiness—all you have to do is claim them. The Prosperity Gospel appeals to our need to make sense of the hurts and failures of life. It also fits perfectly with the American dream that says anything is possible.

In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate tells of her struggle to live despite a terminal diagnosis. I’m reading parts for the third time now, and I’m still crying one minute and laughing out loud the next.

If you ever struggled to know what to say to a sick or dying person, you need to read this.

If you’re struggling to come to grips with your own diagnosis, you need to read this.

But even better, we all need to read this.

The whole country should take a day off and read it together.

It just might lead to a Great National Reset, where we collectively reflect on why we are so angry with each other when the truth is every one of us has a terminal diagnosis. It’s just that some of us haven’t got the word yet. We need a person of faith like Kate who is humble, irreverent, and funny to remind us that…

Faith is still possible.

Love is real.

And life is still worth living.

Father’s love

A few years ago, there was a movement to remove “paternalistic” language from the Bible. Some objected to calling God “Father” or “Son,” arguing that since some people had fathers who abused or abandoned them, calling God “Father” might be a barrier to faith. Others objected to certain passages that were used to marginalize women and minorities. The movement led to translations of the Bible that were more gender neutral. We still need to be sensitive to these concerns. 

The problem with making things gender neutral is that you can neutralize the truth.   

Now, my own father was not perfect. He could be moody, lose his temper, and boy, could he swear. Remember Ralphie’s old man in A Christmas Story?

But every day of his life, my father told me he loved me. It gave me confidence to go out into the world and meet life’s challenges. My heart goes out to everyone who has to face life without a loving father.

The Gospel writer Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth. Mark begins with the fully grown Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens were torn open, and God said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus had been one with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all time…they were loving each other before the creation of the universe. The persons of the Trinity are the essence and the source of pure love.

Yet Mark tells us that God the Father said, “I love you” to Jesus. 

There is something in each of us that longs to hear our father say, “I love you.”

If Jesus needed to hear it, how much more do we need to hear it?

This is one great reason why Jesus was baptized: not just for his sake, but for ours.

In Baptism our heavenly father says to us, “I love you,” as he longs for the day when we will say to him, “I love you too.”

Attract or scare

Scottish Pastor John Bell published a hymn in 1987 called The Summons. The first line goes, “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” In the second stanza, the hymn asks, “Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?”

“Should your life attract or scare?”

Even at his birth, Jesus Christ had the power to attract and scare. 

According to Luke, God sent angels to announce the birth of Jesus to…shepherds. Even in an agrarian economy, shepherds were at the bottom of the pecking order. But the shepherds were immediately attracted to Jesus and went off to see Jesus for themselves.

According to Matthew, when King Herod learned about the birth of Jesus through the Magi, he was “disturbed, and all of Jerusalem with him.” In fact, Herod was so scared of Jesus that he ordered the killing of all boys age two and under.

Meanwhile, the Magi were so attracted to Jesus that they didn’t stop searching until they found him.

The outsiders got it right.

The insiders missed it.

Why would we expect it to be different today? 

No matter how loving and winsome we are, some people will get it and others won’t.  Revealing Jesus Christ to the world carries with it the risk of rejection.

What’s more, we need to commit ourselves to a process of ongoing revelation. The Magi had open minds and a star to guide them. They didn’t mind travelling a long way to a far-off country where their pagan religion would have been downright offensive.

But it was worth it to discover the truth of Jesus Christ.

Just believe

Back in 2014, IKEA produced a long Christmas commercial which you can still watch on YouTube. It’s in Spanish with English subtitles.

It’s about an experiment in which children are asked to write a letter to the “Three Kings,” the counterpart to Santa Claus in Spain, saying what they want for Christmas. They have no trouble telling the Three Kings they’ve been good and letting them know what they want: games, toys, musical instruments.

When they’re done, the children are asked to write another letter, this one to their parents, telling their parents what they want from them. This time the children are quiet and thoughtful. 

The folks conducting the experiment then shared the letters with the parents.

“Dear Mom and Dad, I want you to spend more time with me.”

“I’d like it if you paid a little more attention to us.”

“I’d like it if you would have dinner with us more often.”

“I want us to be together for one whole day.”

“I want you to play, mama, I want you to play cowboys with me.”

Some of the parents are overcome with emotion as they read the letters their children have written. The narrator asks, “Are you surprised?”

The parents all admit, “Not really, they have too many toys already. You can’t fill a vacuum with a toy.”

One mom said, “Imagine, you want to give them the best you can, and the best is yourself!”

Then comes the twist. The researchers ask the kids, if you could send only one of the letters, to the three kings or to your parents, which one would you send?

Every one of the children said if they could only send one letter, it would be the one to their parents. 

Does that surprise anyone?

Then why would it surprise you that the God who created you, the God who is the source of all joy and wisdom and love, would give you the gift of himself?

God’s greatest gift is available to you if you just believe. 

IKEA, The Other Letter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQ3ePGr8Q7k

God and sinners reconciled

It’s at the heart of what Christmas is all about.

It’s why God reached all the way down from heaven to earth and became one of us. It was the only way to fix the brokenness beneath all our other brokenness.

It’s why Jesus was born.

It’s why he lived, died, and was raised.

Perhaps there’s no better case study of reconciliation than the Risen Jesus’ encounter with Peter in John 21.

All the disciples had failed Jesus, but only Peter had boasted that even if everyone else fell away, he would stand by Jesus to the death.

Wrong. Not even close. Just as Jesus had predicted, Peter denied Jesus three times.

So when the Risen Jesus met Peter and the others by the lake, what would Jesus say?

“How could you, Peter?”

“What were you thinking, Peter?”

“Do you know how much you hurt me, Peter?”

No. None of the above. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”

We reduce Christmas to schmaltz. We settle for warm feelings. But you can’t be reconciled to God unless you recognize that you’re a sinner. But the Risen Jesus didn’t point a blood-stained finger from his wounded hand at Peter and shout, “Sinner!” He simply asked, “Do you love me?”

Three times.

Well sinner, do you love him?

Thankful for the mess

A consumer reporter for one of the morning talk shows got in a bit of trouble last week. The reporter said that because everything is more expensive these days, one way to save money was to not serve turkey for Thanksgiving. The reporter said that might have an added benefit: some guests might not show up.

The reporter’s advice wasn’t well received.

Does anyone need a reporter to tell us that we can save money by buying cheaper entrees?

Isn’t the point of Thanksgiving to give thanks together?

Aren’t the ones we get together with the ones we’re most thankful for?

In the movie Christmas Vacation, Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold drove has family crazy trying to have a “Fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.” He nearly destroyed his house in the process.

But we all know from experience that things would have been a mess even if Clark had not been trying way, way too hard.

Relationships are messy, especially family relationships, and most especially when family relationships are combined with high stress and high expectations. 

And yet long ago, when God walked the earth, Jesus was always eating with his friends in high stress situations: 

A wedding where the wine had run out.

In the home of a man he’d just raised from the dead.

In a locked upper room with disciples afraid they were next to be crucified.

The Apostle Paul said that God demonstrated his love for us this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Let’s be thankful for the mess.

Maybe we can even spot Jesus there too.

Thanksgiving precedes the miracle

Two years I ago I did a sermon series on the book 1000 Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, by Ann Voskamp. It was her story of going from a life of self-doubt to finding joy in all things.

Ann’s earliest memory was from age four, when her baby sister died in an accident in front of their farmhouse. The tragedy defined her family’s life.  

Many years later, someone suggested that she make a list of 1000 things she was thankful for:

Consider the blessings in your life.

Write them down.

Give thanks for them.

She did, and inventorying her blessings became a habit. She began to see the blessing in the simplest, everyday things.

Ann Voskamp came to understand that “Thanksgiving precedes the miracle.”

Jesus gave thanks, and a few loaves and fish were enough to feed 5000.

Jesus gave thanks, and Lazarus came out of the tomb.

And on the night of his betrayal, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it with the disciples, and that preceded the greatest miracle of all, the cross and the empty tomb.

Giving thanks is not a way of conjuring up a miracle, of course.

Giving thanks is a practice of the heart that makes God’s blessings real to us.

This Sunday after worship, our church family is going to do an exercise called Asset Mapping to help us discover some of the gifts with which God has blessed us.

We just might discover gifts we’ve overlooked in ourselves and each other. We just might discover ways to honor God by putting those gifts to use in ways we never imagined.

This is also the week set aside for giving thanks for our gifts, so let’s be sure to do that.

Thanksgiving, after all, precedes the miracle.

Unity

Years ago, Jana and I belonged to a Corvette Club. You could join the Corvette club if you owned, say, a Mustang, but why would you? You’d probably prefer to join a club made up of Mustang owners.

On election night recently, Democrats and Republicans could have saved money by renting one hotel ballroom and partying together. But why didn’t they? They preferred to hold separate rallies for their candidates.

Consider all the relationships we have in life. All of them are based on some common interest, belief, or trait.

Every relationship we have is based on some criteria that includes some people and excludes others.

The things that unite us with some people separate us from others.

But there is one exception: our relationship with Jesus Christ.

In John 17, Jesus was praying to his Father just before he was betrayed. He prayed for himself and for his disciples. Last, he prayed for the people who would believe in him after he was gone, based on hearing the disciples’ message alone. He asked his Father that, “All of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

Jesus Christ made an exclusive claim to be one with God. He’s the only person in history who’s gotten away with that. Every other person claiming to be God was forgotten long ago.

But Jesus is also the most inclusive person who ever lived. He transcends all barriers of culture, nationality, language, gender, race, and more. 

If Jesus is the source of your relationship; if you’ve been welcomed into God’s family by grace alone; it doesn’t matter where you live or what kind of car you drive or if you drive at all.

We are all one in him.

Abuse of office

One of the privileges we have as a church is to raise up new pastors. For over two centuries, people who’ve gotten their start in ministry here have gone on to make inestimable contributions to God’s kingdom.

But it’s not getting easier to raise up pastors.

I recently read an account of why churches have been splintering. One phrase seemed to sum up the problem: “Catechized by the culture.”

Church members might go to church for an hour a week, but for the remaining 167 hours they’re steeped in the culture.

How do churches compete?

In many cases, they don’t. They capitulate.

Some adopt the solutions of the culture.

Some adopt politicians as saviors.

The late Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, wrote about how he and other pastors were invited to receive weekly training in mental health by the county health department. The instructor was a prominent psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins. The idea was that pastors would be better equipped to respond to a growing mental health crisis. At first, Peterson appreciated the training. It was heady stuff. But slowly he realized that he was seeing his parishioners as “problems.” Instead of someone beloved by God, he saw “depression” or “anxiety.”

Peterson wrote: “By reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as a pastor. I was trading in the complexities of spiritual growth in congregation for the reduced dimension of addressing a problem that could be named and understood.

“Would I embrace the emotional gratification of solving a problem that could be diagnosed and dealt with head-on, rather than give myself as companion in searching out the sacred mysteries of salvation and holiness?”

This week I took part in seminary training for supervisors of field education students. It was on trauma, something we face in our downtown neighborhood every day. We’ve offered similar training here before.

But this training was solely from a secular perspective. “Meditation” and “mindfulness” were offered as ways to deal with trauma, but not prayer.

When I pointed out that there was nothing about Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t well received. One field education supervisor told me that my comments were, “An abuse of my office.”

When Jesus prayed his great prayer in John 17, it was in the context of the greatest trauma in history, his own. He said, “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

The culture offers lots of tools to help pastors cope with trauma, their own, and the trauma of those they serve. I use them often.

But if I were to leave out Jesus, that would be abuse of my office.