Death Moving in Reverse: Bremen 1st Presbyterian Church

•November 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

I’ve recently had the opportunity to preach a few Sundays at a small church in Bremen, GA to a congregation of less than 30 people.  They are wonderfully welcoming and intelligent people who need a full-time pastor, but in the mean time are incredibly gracious and grateful to even have a 1st year seminary student.  This is a transcript (loosely) of my sermon from the first Sunday in Advent.

1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house [will] be established as the highest of the mountains, and [will] be raised above the hills; all the nations [will] stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that YHWH may teach us the ways of GOD and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4YHWH shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; [and] they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD::

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

So, just a brief historical background for this text: Israel has divided into two kingdoms, north and south, and Isaiah is a prophet in the southern Kingdom of Judah, whose capital is Jerusalem.  Right around the time that Isaiah would have begun his prophetic career, Israel is conquered by the nation of Assyria.  Now, Assyria in the 8th century is the world’s superpower and is creating the largest empire the world has ever seen … So the small little nation of Judah, you can imagine, is simply waiting for the massive army to march south and conquer them, just as they have conquered Israel.

Its important to understand that to be conquered by a foreign nation is to lose all certainty.  You may be exiled to another land, you may lose the freedom to worship your God … or you may simply be killed.  No matter what it ends up looking like, though, its not going to be good.

Now, I want you to keep Keep that history in mind as we listen to these word from Elie Weisel’s Night:

ILLUSTRATION OF EXPECTANT WAITING

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the same day, as usual the bell summoned all the heads of the blocks to go and report. They came back shattered. They could only just open their lips enough to say the word: evacuation. The camp was to be emptied, and we were to be sent farther back.

Where to? /// To somewhere right in the depths of Germany, to other camps; there was no shortage of them.

“When?” /// “Tomorrow evening.”

“Perhaps the Russians will arrive first.” /// “Perhaps.” /// We knew perfectly well that they would not.

The camp had become a hive. People ran about, shouting at one another. In all the blocks, preparations for the journey were going on. I had forgotten about my bad foot.  A doctor came into the room and announced: “Tomorrow, immediately after nightfall, the camp will set out. Block after block. Patients will stay in the infirmary. They will not be evacuated.”

This news made us think. Were the SS going to leave hundreds of prisoners to strut about in the hospital blocks, waiting for their liberators? Were they going to let the Jews hear the twelfth stroke sound?

Obviously not. /// “All of the invalids will be summarily killed,” said the faceless one. “And sent to the crematory in a final batch.”

“The camp is certain to be mined,” said another. “The moment the evacuation’s over, it’ll blow up.”

As for me, I was not thinking about death, but I did not want to be separated from my father. We had already suffered so much, borne so much together; this was not the time to be separated.

I ran outside to look for him. The snow was thick, and the windows of the blocks were veiled with frost. One shoe in my hand, because it would not go onto my right foot, I ran on, feeling neither pain nor cold. /// “What shall we do?”

CONNECT TO TEXT

This is one of the milder scenes from the novel and yet, it conjures up the depths of human fear and anxiety in a way that may help us feel the weight of what Israel and Judah were going through when Isaiah comes on the scene.

A few comparisons: In Auschwitz there is the threat of evacuation :: in Judah there is the threat of being conquered and exiled, while in Israel, those things have already happened. /// In Auschwitz, there is a faint hope that; a waiting; a life and death need for the Russians to show up and liberate the captives :: in Israel that same hope and waiting and need is put on YHWH. /// For Weisel, above all else, he is afraid of being separated from his father :: and at the heart of the fear of exile from Jerusalem is the fear of being separated from the Temple and from the Promised land … these things are the identity of the Jewish people and to be separated from them is to be separated from YHWH … from their father… It can leave you numb, only able to ask the question “What shall we do?”  “What CAN we do?”

CONNECT TEXT TO PRESENT

Now, in the Christian church, we believe that the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is holy scripture and therefore we should be able to glean wisdom from these stories … and yet, it can be incredibly difficult to relate … right?  We are not living in, or even under the threat of conquest and exile.  I doubt if any of us in this room have endured the conditions that were endured by Weisel and his father, who was eventually beaten to death, in Auschwitz … and I actually think that it would be wrong to assume that we can fully understand their perspective unless we’ve actually been there ourselves.

I think that there is a common Christian understanding that defines Advent as the season in which we remember our understanding of this part of the story … In other words, Advent is remembering Israel, or even the world, as it waited on Jesus.  And while that is true in some ways, it would do us well to remember that the Jews weren’t waiting on Jesus … they were waiting on the day of the Lord … the day when all things would be made right and humanity would live in harmony with creation and creator, and that’s not how Jesus showed up!  At least not yet.

It’s difficult for me to believe that an understanding of Advent that is only about what has already happened sometime in the past isn’t also an understanding of the scriptures that doesn’t give its stories any freedom to speak into our lives today.

Maybe we think this way because we’ve been told that Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of the race and that our waiting is over … or maybe we just don’t like waiting and its easier to pretend we don’t see the unfinished, unacceptable state of the world in which we live.

But I believe that it is fair and true to say that we are still living in a world that exists in painful need of redemption.  In many parts of the world, genocide is still a reality; children are dying simply because they can’t get a clean drink of water, or enough food.  War continues to plague this planet, and that one starts to touch home.  We’re still in Iraq, and regardless of your political ideas about that war, I doubt that anyone would argue against the claim that war is not a good way of life … necessary or not … war is a way of death.

Let’s bring it even closer to home; according to the CDC, the divorce rate for the US in 2009 was exactly 50%.  Half of the relationships that come to life on account of love end up falling apart … end up dying.

Beyond that, 1 out of 10 persons over the age of 18 in the US suffers from some form of depression … that means this one touches someone in this room.

And I’m sure you’ve seen it in the news recently, that in the month of September 2010 alone … one month … at least six gay youth — all of whom endured a relentless stream of taunts and oppression by their classmates — ended their own lives.

I could go on and on, but there’s no need … the glaring, obvious truth of our current situation, is that SIN is still very alive and extremely powerful throughout our entire world … and we live in captivity to it.  We still live as exiles from the garden.

State the Problem

Life as we know it is not as it ought to be … it is incomplete; and just like Israel waited on the day of the Lord, and just like the Jewish prisoners of WWII waited on their liberators—so we still wait!  For much of the world—even for privileged us—life isn’t even the right word.

In the second half of John 10:10, Jesus is quoted as having said “I have come that they might have life…” – in Greek the four English words “they, might, have, life” are expressed in one word, and it is in the subjunctive case, meaning “not yet & not definitely.”  In other words, Jesus recognizes that incarnation doesn’t yet make real life a reality for humans.  And as the first church new and we just re-stated, neither does resurrection immediately fix things.

Our reality is still waiting.  And in the narrative that we’ve been given as Christians, what we are waiting for is heaven, right?

“For Israel, thought they may have used slightly different language, their reality is our reality … waiting on the day of the Lord.

It is in the midst of this waiting that Isaiah speaks these words … of imaginative, expectant hope—of advent—expecting the day of the lord … imagining heaven. But Isaiah doesn’t use the same kind of language we do to talk about heaven, does he?

I don’t know your experiences with conversations about heaven, but in my own experience and observation, we think about, and talk about, and even expect heaven in really intangible ways … and that’s not a bad thing, because I think it represents the truth that heaven is beyond our comprehension, but I want to read a couple of descriptions of heaven that I found online, and you tell me if they inspire you;

From GodANDScience.org – “The characteristics of the new creation tell us that it will be vastly different from what we are used to on earth. Probably the most noticeable difference will be the lack of gravity. The New Jerusalem is described as a 1,500 mile cube. Structures of this size would automatically become a sphere in this universe, because of gravity. Therefore gravity will either be absent or significantly reduced in the new creation.

Not very exciting; not very imaginative; who cares? I personally don’t find any value in this kind of description of heaven.

From CBNHeaven is where God is. He is the light of heaven, the joy of heaven. As you mature in your understanding of the Bible, you realize there is no material concept of heaven that will do it justice. The Bible talks about streets of gold as clear as crystal and walls made out of precious stones (see Revelation 21:18-21). All sorts of images immediately come to mind when we mention heaven. More than anything else, heaven is a spiritual condition where one spiritual being is in touch with another spiritual being, and there is total communication and fellowship.  Whatever we consider to be a joy here on earth will be heightened millions of times beyond anything we can conceive when we get to heaven. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).

To me this is vague – veiled in Christian language that sounds good, but what does it mean?  This kind of description may be of value, but still is not imaginative … there is no expectation of anything tangible, and so it is hard to find any real hope in these types of descriptions of heaven.

Walter Brueggeman, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, says that “it is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order … because we are energized not by that which we already posses, but by that which is promised and about to be given.”

I believe that this is precisely what Isaiah is doing in this passage.  Let’s look at it again to see what Isaiah imagines for the communities in Jerusalem and in exile … and, as we’ll see, for the whole of humanity.

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house [will] be established as the highest of the mountains, and [will] be raised above the hills; all the nations [will] stream to it.

YHWH will teach us the ways of GOD so that we may walk in God’s paths.” Out of Zion will go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4YHWH [will] judge between the nations, and [will] arbitrate for many peoples; [and] they [will] beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation [will] not lift up sword against nation, neither [will] they learn war any more.

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

BIG IDEAIsaiah’s response to a world of war, and uncertainty, and exile … is to imagine, expect, and proclaim a day in which YHWH, the one, true God, will undo those things that hinder and destroy life, and do something altogether new!

This is a specific, poetic, imaginative expression of a new reality that challenges the current way of existence, and I, like a good Presbyterian, think that Isaiah challenges the old order in three ways:

  1. 1. Wherever there is feared and realized separateness -> All Nations will stream to God’s House
  2. 2. Wherever there is injustice -> YHWH will teach us the ways of God & will judge between nations
  3. 3. And finally, wherever there is violence & death  -> the new reality is that “they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation [will] not lift up sword against nation, neither [will] they learn war any more.”

To me, the end of verse 4 is the climax of this passage and the statement that ties it all together.  It is the most poetic and the most totalizing statement that Isaiah makes here; and in a beautiful metaphor Isaiah says this:

All of the things that once promoted violence, the very instruments of death, will not be cast off into non-existence, but will actually be transformed into instruments of life; plowshares and pruning hooks are farming tools that allowed people to eat from the ground … specifically to eat food that doesn’t have to be slaughtered.  Isaiah’s imaginative vision of the day of the Lord /// is a vision of death moving in reverse.

It’s an incredibly powerful vision, especially in light of the idea that the words life & death encompass far more than physical existence and a pulse.

If death is separation and injustice, the lack of love and grace … if death is believing that you are better than someone else, or if it is self-hatred, then what does Isaiah’s vision do to those things?

What parts of your life aren’t life at all, but are actually shaped by the instruments of death?  And are you able to expect a day when those things are totally reversed? That is the kind of advent that we are invited into!  Not just a wish or desire, but a real vision; real belief, in the midst of uncertainty and exile …

Isaiah does not offer Israel a solution, but rather, in advent, offers an energizing vision of the future that has been promised. Advent is hopeful, expectant, imaginative waiting on the day of the Lord, and IT IS OUR REALITY!

Embrace it!  Learn the art of imaginative Advent, because anything less is simply waiting for death to finish its work!

PAUSE ///

It’s worth noticing the last verse of this passage.  This is the genius of Isaiah:  He doesn’t paint this vision of the day of the Lord and then move immediately into the berating that will come in the rest of chapter two, but instead realizes that the vision of God’s future is one that has the power to energize people … to energize nations!  And so, at the climax of the of imaginative vision … at the point where he says, DEATH WILL LITERALLY START GOING BACKWARDS AND REAL, TRUE, AUTHENTIC LIFE WILL EMERGE INTO A TOTALIZING REALITY, he inserts a simple invitation: 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

“I know you’re scared, I know you’re not living the life that you were created to live and that sin has its claws in you, but it won’t always be that way—these are the ways of the Lord—now COME … let’s start living them!”

PAUSE ///

You see, the thing about imaginative advent is that it energizes people to “live into reality” the new creation that has been promised and made known to them.  For Israel, their reality was a world of war … of swords and spears; a little imagination turned those weapons into farm tools and invited a better, fuller way of life.

What’s your reality?  And what will you do with just … a little … imagination?

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A Conversation …

•August 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Do You love me?

What could I do that would convince you?

I don’t know … have that rabbit jump up on my lap and nustle his head against me lovingly.

You’d forget in a month and be asking the same question … Do you trust Me?

I think so.

I’ve spoken love to you since before you were conceived and I still do that.

But I NEED to feel your love now! I have this huge responsibility and expectations to live up to and people to impact for YOUR kingdom and I don’t even feel like you are with me. I feel like I will fail … and in some ways I don’t even want to succeed. My desires have changed and I don’t know why or when. That scares me and I don’t like it. I has been a while since I’ve been reminded…

Has it?

I don’t know … how do you show me your love?

My mercies are new every day.

Do I have issues?

Yes … sin. But I love you. I want what is best for you; and what is best for you is best for everyone because you have my love inside of you … you will come back into the light, but in the meantime, be assured that I am always with you. Look for me and rely on me and you will be free!

Can’t Believe I’m Writing This …

•April 29, 2010 • 2 Comments

I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and was inspired to write (or to think, then to write).  The book is pretty incredible, as most of his stuff is … Eugene is kind of an author-mentor of mine … and yes, we’re on a first name basis.  Either way, I’ve gone off on a tangent; back to the point.

While I was struck by a number of different ideas that were presented in the book, one, towards the very end, seemed to strike a particular nerve within my psyche.  In speaking of practicing obedience in blessing or worshipping our Creator, Peterson has the following to say:

“We are invited to bless the Lord; we are commanded to bless the Lord.  And then someone says, ‘But I don’t feel like it.  And I won’t be a hypocrite.  I can’t bless God if I don’t feel like blessing God.  It wouldn’t be honest.

The Biblical response to that is ‘Lift up your praising hands to the Holy Place, and bless GOD!’  You can lift up your hands regardless of how you feel; it is a simple motor movement.  You may not be able to command your heart, but you can command your arms.  Lift your arms in blessing; just maybe your heart will get the message and be lifted up also in praise.  We are psychosomatic beings; body and spirit are intricately interrelated.  Go through the motions of blessing God and your spirit will pick up the cue and follow along. ‘For why do men lift their hands when they pray? Is it not that their hearts may be raised at the same time to God?'”

I’ll just go ahead and say it … this makes me very uncomfortable.

[As a note of precaution, the rest of the post has the potential to be slightly offensive; I am simply explaining my experience and opening up conversation, not claiming that my experience is more valid, legitimate, or God-pleasing than anyone else’s.  Hope you’ll join in the conversation!]

I don’t know exactly why hand-raising is such big deal to me, but it always has been; I’ve never really felt like raising my hands in worship … it always seemed unnatural to me, and so consequently, I’ve had a hard time understanding people who’s hands, seemingly involuntarily, shoot up in the air every time they hear delay on an electric guitar riff.

My experience of corporate worship has ventured into a number of different settings, from the medium-sized presbyterian church that I grew up in, to high school FCA (the denominational mutt), to the mega-churches that I’ve either worked for or been a part of since the beginning of college, to youth workers conferences, to emergent church cohorts … I’ve seen a lot of hand raising … sometimes even convinced myself, begrudgingly though it may have been, to join in , but there was always this one little issue that I had with it; I have always believe that raising of hands in worship was a display of how close to God the person was feeling in the moments of worship.  And though I realize that this is not definitely true, the act has often seemed to me to give off a little bit of a “hey everyone, look how spiritual I am” vibe.  I remember not liking, or at least not trusting the hand-raisers in high school and college and thought that they were being hypocrites by acting so “showy” in corporate worship settings, but then living no differently than the rest of us.

On a few occasions I was coerced by worship leaders into raising my hands in worship. I don’t remember feeling any different other than simply becoming uncomfortable and worrying what people were thinking about me.  If they thought the same things about me that I thought about other hand-raisers, my feelings were certainly going to be hurt.  But what choice did I have?  The cool-haired worship leader had convinced me that I wasn’t really worshipping God with my whole self if my hands weren’t in the air.

I’ve often wondered why God would care whether or not my hands were up … it just seemed a bit arbitrary to the act of worship.  Kneeling, even laying prostrate, I could understand (though I am no more comfortable with either of those actions).  At least they are symbolizing the subjection of self to the authority of God in a kind of “Wayne and Garth: We’re not worthy” way … if anything, raising hands usually seems like the opposite, does it not?

And, though I do not believe this to be the primary purpose of acts of worship, I do wonder what the non-Christian thinks when he or she see a commercial selling a worship album full of songs that debuted 20 years ago, and the images are of thousands of jubilant Christians with hands high in the air, singing to their Lord.  My educated guess is that the majority are not seeing those images and thinking, “How can I get what those people have?” but rather, they are thinking “What a bunch of naive, elitist, arrogant people.”  And in a way, I can’t blame people for thinking this way.

What’s interesting is that Eugene doesn’t talk about raising hands in worship as a response to feeling a certain way (namely, particularly close to God), but as an act of obedience, designed to be a catalyst to feeling, or at least to changing the state of the heart … this is a whole new concept for me, and off the bat, seems to make much more sense of hand-raising as an act of worship.

The difference is subtle, but significant.  What if rather than raising our hands because we are so overwhelmed by how “saved we are” we raised hands because of how broken we are and how saved we still need to be … not as a show of our closeness to God in a given moment, but in response to knowing that our heart is far from God – reaching out in need/desire/hope to connect with God when the reality of our heart and our world is that humanity’s relationship with the Divine is still broken.

The action could no longer be thought of as the self-affirming act of pious Christians, but as the obedience of real people of faith, who know that their hearts are easily distracted and deceived.

Does this motivation for a given posture of worship not fit more cleanly into the narrative which we have been given in the Scriptures?  The Bible is a story of the people of God, old and new testaments, constantly being pursued by God, but rarely responding adequately.  It is a story of tearing sackcloth and crying out “my God, Why have you forsaken me?” … of captivity and crying out “Deliver us!”

And it is our story.  We at the same time live in exile because of ourselves and deliverance because of God. We choose distance, but God chooses closeness; and so all we can do in worship is to reach out in obedience – in spite of ourselves – knowing that God accepts our physical reach, even when our emotional/intellectual/spiritual ascent is nowhere to be found, and uses that reach to transform our hearts and even raise them up to God’s self, so that even our ability to worship God calls for our gratitude.

I don’t know how much of this is theologically defendable, but I do know that it is easier for me to write than it will be for me to do … maybe because theory is rarely reality, and patterns and perceptions are hard to change.  So how do those of us who have lived in discomfort with hand-raising (our own and that of others) adequately respond to the commands in scripture to raise our hands in worship – and to the challenge put forward by Eugene and other authors to do this as an act of obedience having nothing to do with feeling beyond acknowledging its lacking?

Comments encouraged 🙂

Jesus is only Kind of the Reason for the Season

•March 3, 2010 • 1 Comment

I’m not sure why I didn’t post this in December when I wrote and delivered it to a classroom full of college students, but I didn’t.  This is the transcript of the last talk I gave as the college pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, from December 19, 2009.  Hope you enjoy it!

Who’s read the book “The 5 Love Languages” before?  The idea is that people give and receive love in different ways, which can really fall into 5 different categories:

Words of Affirmation,

Quality Time,

Physical Touch,

Acts of Service, &

Giving or Receiving Gifts

Some people give love differently than they receive it, some people naturally give or receive love in more than one of these categories, some people are just not very loving people, kind of like the Grinch, and I’d imagine that most of you have someone in mind who you’ll be seeing over the next few weeks who could use the melodic chorus of the Whos from Who-ville.

Well, this morning, we’re going to be talking about one of these love languages in particular, and it happens to be the language that is the most foreign to me … anyone have a guess as to what is might be?

I am not a gift giver … I’m not much of a gift receiver, but I am definitely less of a gift giver.  I’ve tried … it really pains me how difficult it is for me to shop for other people, but I can never come up with a good, informed idea of what people want or need, which makes me feel like maybe I don’t know them as well as I ought to, or something like that, but the problem persists right through my immediate family, who I’ve know since birth, and best friends, so I have to settle on the hypothesis that my mind just doesn’t work that way.

Quality Time, words of Affirmation, Physical touch … I’m good at those things, but Gift Giving has always been foreign to me.

So, it probably could go without saying that Christmas is a particularly stressful time for me.  It’s a whole season dedicated to giving.  There’s no season of quality time, or season of physical touch … just a season of giving.

Why?

I’m sure y’all have heard theories as to the origin of gift giving on Christmas, and Santa Claus and so on and so forth.  And what I have generally heard is that we give gifts to remember the story of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that were given to the Christ child by the Magi.  Apparently this is the origin of the Christian tradition.

And while that may be true to our history, I am beginning to believe that the way we explain that tradition, that of giving good gifts to others, misses a wonderfully profound opportunity to live out our calling of showing the world who God is.

The Magi didn’t just give because they felt like dropping a lot of coin on a random infant … they gave as a response to a particular infant … they gave gifts because they themselves, along with the rest of humanity, had received a gift in this particular infant being born.

And to tie this all back in to the “love language” stuff, we’re going to look at this really short verse from one of my favorite books in the Bible, 1st John.  Keep in mind that giving gifts is a way of showing love, and receiving gifts is a means to feeling loved as I read 1st John 4:19 – “We love because he first loved us.”

We love because He first loved us.

The magi gave because He first gave to them

and

We [give] because He first [gave to] us.

I was meeting with a mentor of mine Friday morning who was recently named as the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, and talking to him about this message, and he told me that in the liturgical calendar … this historic calendar for the church year and its teachings, there are three significant holidays that correspond to the three parts of the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit, and that leaves two major, church holidays … what are they and which parts of the trinity correspond to each?

Easter & Christmas … and Easter is about Jesus.

Christmas … the holiday around which we hear people say “Jesus is the reason for the season” isn’t even primarily about Jesus, the Son.  It is about the generosity of the Father who gave his Son … as a free gift.  Christmas is about the divine love language of gift giving.

What’s the most well known verse in the Bible?

John 3:16 – “For God so LOVED the world that HE GAVE his only Son”

Our god is a god, who out of love for us, gives us only good gifts … the best of these is the gift of self … in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit.

I want to take a little bit of time to unpack this idea of Jesus as God’s gift to the world, to humanity, to you, and to me.

What do you think makes Jesus such a good gift?  Why is Jesus more significant than, say, a nice pair of hiking socks?  What was so compelling about this gift from God that the magi would have travelled long distances to respond by giving good gifts of their own?  Do we know?

And if we don’t know, will learning the significance of the Jesus-gift compel us to respond in the same way … by giving good gifts to God and to others?

And without trying to persuade you of the brokenness of the world or our inability to attain righteousness and restore our relationship with God on our own, I’ll try to give insight to the gift of Jesus in a short statement:

God gave a desperately needy, grossly undeserving population the gift of God’s self … not expensive jewelry, or a really nice car, or flowers, or anything else that we might look at and be reminded of God … God gave us God … even when we wanted anything but a god

… because God so loved the world that He was willing to risk everything to win us back from the seduction of other kingdoms that will only lead us to death … that we may have life as the beloved of God.

God gave … and in turn we give … not because we are obligated, but because love gives … and when you have been given love, there’s no option … you’ve got it.

Now, how will you give it away?

Two Weeks Removed/In …

•February 13, 2010 • 2 Comments

For the last 6 years of my life I’ve been a church-ministry guy. A month and a half ago I left my job, unsure of my future, but knowing that I could not, at this point, continue to work in the church. I started the job hunt (poor timing) and after about a month, landed a job as a waiter and bar-back at a new restaurant & bar in Atlanta called Ormsby’s. Here are 3 observations I’ve made so far:

1. Nothing helps to confirm a calling like job hunting – At the very beginning of this significant life transition, I was admittedly becoming skeptical of my calling into “the cloth” as it has been called … the life felt like a little bit more of a burden than I was willing to commit the rest of my life to. But as I searched, interviewed, analyzed, and interviewed some more, I slowly came to the realization that I was nowhere near as excited about any of the jobs I was interviewing for as I had been about the job I left; “proclaiming the great message that we carry as ministers of God’s Word, and followers of Jesus … that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” – Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus”

As it is now, I am planning to continue on my original path, pursuing my calling through attending Columbia Theological Seminary, beginning in July (if I get in … )

2. Either people don’t change, or I am incapable of it – One of the things I was excited about in taking this job was the freedom of being able to leave work at work. When I was building/running a college ministry, I would often stay awake at night, tossing and turning, agonizing over why students weren’t showing up to theology on tap, or concerned for a specific, hurting, lonely student in another state. It would seem like those kinds of “keep you awake” concerns don’t really exist in the restaurant world … but I have once again found myself unable to sleep, tossing and turning worrying about messing up large table’s orders, or dropping plates in customers’ laps (that one I’ve already done!) … literally … can’t sleep because of it. And so I suppose it is just who I am to over-worry about anything I have control over, large or small. I must say, this self-discovery has come as quite a disappointment.

3. Old Thoughts are often more helpful new ones – I was re-reading some of my writings from the last 6 years the other day and came across something that I wrote during my junior or senior year of college, when I had ministry in the church, and apart from the institutional church, on Georgia Tech’s campus. The gist was that I really preferred to be doing ministry outside of the church … or at least with the types of people who aren’t usually found at churches. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know if that is because that is how God wired me, or if the distinction is just similar to the differences in coaching a 4 year old and an 18 year old in swimming; it is much easier to see the child’s progress than it is to see the veteran’s. I do love celebrating with someone who learns to float or blow bubbles underwater for the first time 🙂

Anyway, the point of all of that is that the restaurant world is about as far removed from the institutional church as one can get in a legal vocation (barring UFC-type fighting, which has sadly become an attraction that many evangelical churches are embracing in an attempt to draw in more members … to this I can only say “booooo!!!”). I’m quickly making friends with my co-workers, few, if any of whom know Jesus (can I make that kind of statement?), and can see myself having relationships like the ones I had in my fraternity at Tech. I know that I love talking to people about Jesus, but particularly people who admit to having no idea who the man really was/is. And for the first time since graduating, I’ve found myself surrounded by these wonderful people again. I can’t help but be excited to grow in relationship with them to the point that we can talk about how loved they are by their Creator.

I don’t know what any of this really means for my future. I do know that it has been a struggle for me to keep my focus on walking with Jesus since it is no longer my job, but that is without question my greatest desire, and I believe that God will honor that and continue to show me opportunities to serve and grow into the person I was created to be … whoever that may be.

May I be available to your every invitation and call, Lord.

And God Said “Let There Be Dancing!”

•October 24, 2009 • 2 Comments

superbadI have pretty much always hated dancing … with the exception of my early childhood when I can vaguely remember dancing in the sandbox and thinking that I was awesome.  But somewhere … at some point, I grew into inhibitions … into awareness that other people see and make judgments upon my life.

And the dancing stopped.

“If only I were good at it, and could spin around on my head, or do splits, or the robot, or something … but I’m not good at it, and so I will stand over at the bar, or sit at the table, and watch.”

I just finished reading Donald Miller’s new book “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” and towards the end of the book he tells a story of a man who, in an effort to combat the otherwise boring demeanor of New Years Day, started a New Years Day Parade in his neighborhood.  And there was one rule.  No one was allowed to watch the parade … the only way that people could benefit from the line of people marching in costumes with balloons was to become one of them … to participate.

And as I read those words, I thought about my crippling fear of dancing, and how, if at all possible, I will avoid having to participate when my friends go out and dance, even though they seem to have a really great time.  And I thought about Karaoke … which also causes me to become physically uncomfortable, but other people seems to enjoy immensely.

And I’ve wondered this before, but the thought came back to me: “what would happen if I didn’t allow myself to watch the parade?”  What if I was always in?  Would my life’s story be better?  Would I bring more joy to the table … for myself and for the rest of the world?

What if that mantra transcended dancing and singing and moved into serving the sick, poor, and marginalized of the world, even when it would make me physically uncomfortable?

My sense is nobody really cares if I can spin on my head and do the robot … they care whether or not I am willing to enter into life with them.  And I truly believe that this would bring my Creator joy!

Overcoming Fear

•October 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Video Clip: Saving Silverman

Sometimes we just want to hide from the world don’t we?  Whatever it is that we are supposed to do, or that we are expected to do feels like its more than we can handle, and so rather than engaging our task or our conflict, or whatever it is, we cower in fear … we throw a jacket over our head and pretend to be a coat-rack in hopes that the source of our fear will just pass by, sparing whatever punishment might otherwise befall us.

I get it … and this is kind of a light illustration, but nonetheless:

PERSONAL STORY:  When I was about 15 years old I was pitching for the first time in a little league baseball game.  I’d always been a catcher and a second baseman, and I didn’t really have a good curve ball or anything, but had matured a little bit faster than most of the other kids my age and could throw just a straight fastball that most kids couldn’t catch up with.  I came in around the 4th inning … was a little wild in the warm ups, but got it under control by the first batter.  And one after the next, three hitters came up, swung at 3 pitches each and missed every ball.  I’d struck out the side in 9 pitches!  And I know that pitchers aren’t supposed to show emotion, but I’m sure I was smiling like a chunky 5 year old on his birthday as I walked off the field.

Next inning rolls around, I probably strut back out there, maybe flex a little for the other dugout or wink or do something chochy that 15 year old me thinks will be intimidating … and the warm ups end and Brandon Pilgrim steps into the batters’ box.

At 15 years old Brandon is probably 6 inches taller than I am, at least 75 lbs heavier, had bright red hair and a nasty goatee, and was just uglier than dammit …  if anyone followed college football between 2004 and 2007, he was a starting offensive lineman for Clemson.  And to top it off he was a fastball hitter.

On the first pitch of the inning, Brandon connects with a low, fastball and sends a BB right back at me.  And this is not for dramatic effect, I promise; it felt like I had a full minute to react and still couldn’t get my glove down in front of my right shin in time, and I hobbled off the mound while the third baseman tried to finish the play.

Now, don’t get me wrong here … it hurt … I had seam marks imprinted into my skin and a nice bruise … but functionally, nothing was messed up.  There was no reason that I couldn’t go on pitching, but for some reason, when I tried, I couldn’t throw the ball across the plate anymore.  In the dirt and halfway up the backstop, sure, but nowhere near the strike-zone.

Something had changed in my head and it was keeping me from doing what I knew I was capable of doing … it was crippling me.

At the simplest level, what do you think it was?  FEAR.

“What if the next guy sends one off my face, or right into my jugular?”

I was afraid of getting hit again and had to be pulled from the game.

Problem: “Fear cripples … and we’ve got plenty of ‘what if’ questions to fear, don’t we?”

Fear Questions:

  • What if I lose my job?
  • What if I don’t get a job?
  • What if he breaks up with me?
  • What if she says no?
  • What if my parents are disappointed?
  • What if they think I’m stupid?
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • What if I’m not good enough?
  • What if I make the wrong decision?
  • What if I fail?

Well, people have been asking ‘what if’ questions and trying to get out of scary responsibilities since the beginning of people, and this morning we’re going to look at a story that you’ve all heard before to see how God chooses to enter into our fears.

Summarize Exodus 3 – “Moses should have nothing to fear”

Read 4:1-17

FEAR (4:1): External Circumstance – What if Something Goes Wrong?

VERSE (4:2): “What’s in your hand? … ” – God can use what we perceive as ordinary and powerless to do extraordinary things. What do you have at your disposal … what gifts have you been given that you and God can use in this circumstance?

What does Moses use to bring the plagues upon Egypt?  To part the Red Sea?  To bring water out from a rock when the people are thirsty? … His Staff … God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary!

FEAR (4:10):  Insecurity – What if I Screw Up … if I’m just not good enough?

VERSE (4:11-12): “Who [gave humans their] made your mouth?” – our faith and our confidence cannot be in ourselves and our own ability, but in our God and God’s ability … even more, in God’s desire to use even us.  God promises to act where we feel weakest (ref.) because our God does not require our strength, but our obedience!

FEAR (4:13): Crippled – Outright Refusal to Engage

VERSE (4:14-16): What about Aaron?” – “Community and relationship is the way that God confronts our giving up.”  You don’t have to respond to God’s call alone, but God doesn’t let you off the hook either.  Moses was still called to bring a nation out of slavery and that is exactly what he did … and God adequately equipped him to that task.

God Confronted Moses fears on all 3 levels:

Conclusion: Does anyone know what the most frequent command in scripture is? The command “Do Not Fear” can be found over 100 times throughout the scriptures.

God created us and has promised to interact with us in a way that should put all of our fears to rest.   “What is in your hand?  I’ll use it. Who made your mouth?  I’ll use it.  What about your brother Aaron?  I’ll use him.  What I have called you into, I will not let you fail to accomplish.”

True life is not responding to fear well; it is overcoming it … it is the end of fear.

1 John 4:16-18 – … God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

CLOSING PRAYER

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are you most afraid of professionally, personally, and relationally?
  2. What do you have “in your hands” that God can use?
  3. What does it mean to you that God made you and calls you into meaningful, sometimes scary work?
  4. Who can be Aarons in your different places of fear?  Do you think that you would be willing to call on them if need be?