Overcoming the estrangement

I’m working on this Sunday’s sermon on Acts 11:1-18. Peter has some explaining to do. The apostles learn that he’s been baptizing Gentiles and eating at their table. This was forbidden in Jewish practice at the time. Gentiles were thought to be unclean. Peter receives what pastors fear after doing what they thought was right: criticism! “Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?” the leadership asks.

Peter turns into a defense lawyer as he lays out a ‘step by step’ account. Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts, likes giving an orderly account. If Luke were in a church today, he’d want everything that happened in worship to be in the bulletin. He likes order even with the accounts of the fiery movement of the Holy Spirit. Peter explains a vision he had in the city of Joppa. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven filled with foods that were considered unclean by Jewish dietary law. There were four-footed animals, beasts, reptiles, birds. The Lord said to Peter, “Kill and eat.” Peter protest. That’s part of who Peter is. He has the tendency to rebuke the Lord’s words. He’s the same Peter who protested to Jesus at the last supper that he would never deny him.

Peter had good reason to question the Lord’s instructions. He did not want to defy the teaching he had been taught his whole life. A critical moment occurs when God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:9). The Lord says these words three times to Peter. That may seem like a casual detail, but remember Peter denied Jesus three times in his most trying hour. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. With a strong-willed, often close-minded but faithful apostle like Peter, it takes some repetition for the Lord to drive home the point.

One of the first lessons of this story is that God changes minds about traditions and customs of what is clean. Today, it seems that when challenged, people grasp tighter to their beliefs than in opening their minds to change. Conversion is about the changing of one’s heart and mind. We Christians are in the change business. Oftentimes that change occurs through our proclamation to others about the good news of Jesus and his message of repentance. People change and follow Christ. At others times, God is trying to change our understanding of our religious traditions. To be Biblical means to be open to change. For Peter, it began with the changing of his mind about food. Look where it would lead him.

After this vision, three Gentile men arrive. The Spirit tells Peter to go with them and not to make a distinction between ‘them and us’. When I read that phrase, I felt a bit of gut punch. The world in which we live is carved up in the use of ‘them and us.’ We build our lines of demarcation: conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, evangelical and missional. In some ways it’s inevitable to categorize people by labels because they are descriptive of beliefs and behaviors.

For instance, consider the word inclusion. It’s an important word to me. I like for people to feel included. As a pastor, I like for people of all walks of life and faith perspectives to feel welcomed in our sanctuary. I’m also keenly aware that attempting to include and embrace all people will lead to conflict that must be sorted out. There is a meme passing around the internet attributed to playwright James Baldwin. I cannot verify he actually wrote this, but the sentiment seems right. The meme is:

We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

The quote begs the question about how far one’s embrace of the other can extend. It seems to me that God is committed to erasing out of our vocabulary the phrase ‘us and them’ but it will take honest, respectful and dignifying work.

I have a church member who fought in Vietnam. Over the years, he has tried to explain why our country went to war. He considered the explanation that we fought against communism. He considered the possibility we fought over bad intel. Eventually though, he came to believe the reason we went to war was something more primal. The reason we went to war is because we like war. As a youth, he found war to be adventuresome and exciting. War makes heroes out of people, gives purpose and action. After witnessing the horrific outcomes of Vietnam he became more and more convicted of our need for faith to root out that sinful nature that seems to enjoy conflict and division.

In Peter’s case, Jews and Gentiles lived in conflict and couldn’t imagine a life without it. Division was deeply woven into the fabric of their existence together. To overcome that conflict required an intervention from God. In a world deeply divided, we will need the same. We will need the miraculous work of God and of a savior in Jesus who sought through his life, death and resurrection to end the divisions of God’s people. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that Christ died that he “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2:16).

If we trust our sinful nature, we will find ourselves in a place where we further divide people while sickly enjoying the conflict. We need an intervention. We need to be open to God’s vision to change our minds, even about past traditions. This passage from Acts 11 has helped liberate hearts and minds. It has helped free slaves, give rights to women and envision a more hopeful and inclusive world. I would add that a scripture like this would be one to consider in our current conversation about human sexuality and how God can change long-standing views. My hope is that people would at least consider it.

I have been reading a book by Bishop Robert Schnase called, the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. It’s an updated version. And in it, he provides a definition for hospitality. First, he says that the Biblical word for hospitality in Greek is “philoexnia” the “love of the stranger”. That’ll preach! But he also says the goal of hospitality is to overcome the estrangement. This definition hits home for me on so many levels.

There are many reasons people feel estranged. Some feel estranged from God. Others feel estranged from people who hold different opinions and beliefs. Others feel estranged from loved ones because they are addicted to their screens and are unsure how to love and accept love.

Hospitality may be one of the most important words for our day. I have a feeling we don’t like the division. Sure, the lower, human side of us digs into conflict, but our experience teaches us that conflict leaves us empty and hurt. The divine side of us wants to find connection and love with God and others. To find such a love requires an intervention from God. Maybe one of the ways we find it is the way Peter did.

After this vision he baptizes and then eats with people with whom he had been estranged his whole life. In fact, that’s the Apostles’ first criticism of Peter. They criticized him because he sat down and ate with Gentiles. But mercy of mercies, after Peter explains himself to this church committee, they “praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18). If only every church meeting ended that way!

We can overcome the estrangement when we sit down at the table together. It’s a place to share our lives. This past Mother’s Day, our family met in Madison, Georgia for dinner with my saint of a mom. We have a happy family. Like most families, we have our disagreements, varying political views and family dynamics here and there. Over dinner, I was sitting with my mother, brothers, sister, their families and my family. It was there we shared stories and laughed. My 6 year old daughter Katie said to me, “Daddy, tell them the story about me. I want them to hear it. Tell it like you always do.”

I did. I said, “We were out outside one day near the driveway. Katie was 2 or so. She picked up this big stick. She started to whack me with it. It hurt! Finally Blair comes over and says to Katie, ‘now Katie, remember we don’t hit daddy with sticks.’ Katie looks at her curiously and says…’Well, mommy, then what do we hit him with?'”

The family laughed. Katie seemed pleased with my telling. Warmth abided at the table. I found my heart at home and at peace. Hospitality can help us overcome the estrangement. We are created to be part of God’s divine family that shares love at the table. In times of conflict, what if we put down the sticks and instead sat at the table?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authentic over cool. Thanks, Rachel Held-Evans.

Rachel Held-Evans died tragically today after experiencing bad reactions to medications for the flu. She was 37 with two young children and husband. She was a Christian writer who explored her questions about faith that most of us have thought but have never asked out loud. She challenged conservative evangelicalism and the patriarchy that dominates much of its theology. She did so with wit, love and courage. Many of those she challenged have expressed a deep respect for her candor and for her character in attacking ideas and not people. She made them better.

When I first read her blog on why the church was losing the millennial generation, I was fatigued of reading of such articles. (Congregations and friends can grow fond of passing to pastors articles about why the church is losing members. It gets depressing!) But her words stuck as she articulated what I found myself wanting in a church. She argued that millennials are looking for a church that values authenticity over being cool. I mentioned this to a friend, who told me I should be in good shape.

At times in my ministry, I confess I have slipped over into putting more value on the cool than the authentic. Forgive me! But people like Rachel draw me back to what I love about faith and about Jesus!

I hope for an authentic faith that allows for questions and helps wandering people find their way back to an authentic Jesus. It’s the Jesus my home church taught me. It’s a Jesus who showed us how to love without pretension and how to speak out while maintaining humility. It’s a Jesus that can lead people to change their mind and to include and embrace the LGBTQ community.

As one who is new to blogging, I draw inspiration from her courageous witness to say publicly what others have thought for a long time. She gave space and affirmation to others in going first. For this post, I leave with you an excerpt from her article on why millennials are leaving the church. It’s one of her first and it still rings true today.

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

RHE, may your witness give rise to new voices! May those voices help others find their deepest, authentic longing for Jesus! Rise in glory.

 

 

Defining grace: God loves you when you act bad.

What is grace? It’s a basic question, but one that needs constant attention for the Christian life. Grace lies at the heart of the Christian faith. In my tradition, as United Methodist, we have three ways of defining grace. Grace is prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. These are not words we use a lot in common speech, but words that can give life. For today’s post, I’ll start with prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before us. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, spoke of it as “free in all, and for for all” (Sermon, “Free Grace,” 1739).  When Jesus gave his life on a cross, Jesus gave his life for all people and the forgiveness of their sins. There are no limits to grace. This grace is God’s unmerited, unearned, undeserved love at work in the world.

When we offer Holy Communion in our worship, I try to teach our congregation and children especially to open their hands to receive the bread. I teach them not to reach for the bread and grab it, but instead to receive. To receive is to accept a gift. Grace is God’s gift to us!

On a practical level, prevenient grace means that God is working in our lives when we are not aware of it. We Christians are not deist. We don’t believe God created the world and withdrew from it. God is always working through the Holy Spirit. In this Easter season, I’m reminded of the story of Jesus visiting the disciples on Easter Sunday (John 20:19-31). The disciples have locked themselves behind closed doors. Jesus is able to enter the room despite the door being locked. Jesus still works the same way through the Holy Spirit. When we close the doors to God, God is always working to get inside our lives and draw us to God’s love.

The work of prevenient grace is dynamic. It can awaken us to our sin. All of us have missed the mark in our lives. We have gone astray. Some of us have may have gotten greedy and made riches our aim in life. Some of may think about a time in college where we put our faith on hold. Some of us may have turned to addictive substances to cope with the stresses of life. When we least expected it, we feel God speaking to us. Maybe it was a friend who became a messenger of  God or we felt our lives hit rock bottom with a thud and knew God was trying to get our attention. That’s God’s prevenient grace.

God is working in your life. Jesus Christ cares about you and wants to help you receive the abundant life that comes through a relationship with God.

Recently, one of my daughters had a tough night. She was not listening to us. She did not want to leave the playground. There maybe have been some kicking and screaming! Hers was the kicking. Our was the screaming. After all settled down, she comes to me and says, “Dad, do you love me even when I act bad?”

For a moment, I got to experience the question we might ask God. “God, do you love me even when I act bad?” The answer for a parent and more importantly for God is, “Yes, of course. I love you even when you act bad.”

Grace is a gift. Grace is working in your life even though you might not be aware of God. I invite you to open your hands and your heart to receive this wonderful gift called grace.

What Easter means to me this year

Easter is a few days away. Each year, I find myself asking, “What does Easter mean to me this year?” Each year, the Easter story has its own way of speaking. This year, the imagery of a garden comes to mind as the focus image.

Jesus was buried in a garden tomb. It makes me think about my own burial. I’ve never thought much about where I would be buried. I don’t have a plot picked out. I probably should. I recall one of my earliest jobs as a high schooler. I helped lay tombstone. It was hot, hard work, especially in Jackson, GA in the summer. Ralph Wilson was a great first boss. He owned the company. He’d always always take us out to a big lunch. You could always count on him to pay. (although it’s hard to work after you eat fried catfish, his favorite meal). I’ve tried to replicate his kindness to others as now I manage staff.

It was grueling work. But honestly, as crazy as it sounds, graveyards can be beautiful places. When we would set headstones, most of them included a flower pot. On several occasions I recall family members of the deceased pull up in the car to see our work. You could tell they had waited anxiously to witness the headstone in place. Whenever we installed a headstone, we would sweep it to make the sure the family had a good first impression. On many occasions, I watched as a spouse or child brought flowers for the pots. Many other times, I observed loved ones visiting other plots to change out the flowers for the season. It was always a beautiful gesture and a nice moment to break from shoveling the hard red clay.

Flowers evoke life. Fragile, temporal flowers stand in quite the contrast to heavy stone that must be placed with machinery.  Even with the flowers, I still get eery walking through a graveyard. But still, I’m glad they’re there. Graveyard flowers help remind us of life in the midst of death.

In John’s account of the resurrection, Mary mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. Although I haven’t done the research, I assume there were people entrusted to grow and nurture the flowers around the rock tombs. I assume they came early in the morning to water and trim before the heat set in.

Was Mary wrong? Could it be that Jesus, the risen savior, is the keeper of God’s new garden? It makes sense. Life began in a garden in Eden. Adam and Eve shared the duties of gardening in the early morning. They tilled and toiled. It was a place of purpose and innocence and a harmonic creation. But the garden is also where our first parents fell from grace. It was in the first garden that death entered the world through heir disobedience. As John Milton wrote about the fall in Paradise Lost,

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat.
In the same garden where life began, death was also born. It makes sense that Jesus is the new gardener to care for this new creation that has been redeemed by our Lord Jesus. The resurrection has helped us regain Eden.
The garden is part of our story. God entrusted us with life and with the lives of our neighbors. But there are times we have screwed up this garden. We have sown seeds of deceit and hate. We have allowed the weeds of our pride get in the way of God’s purposes. We have neglected to tend to the vulnerable people of our world and they have wilted from our lack of care. We continually make a mess of God’s garden. That’s why need our resurrected Lord as our gardener.

When the kids won’t go to bed…

Last night, Blair and I were putting the kids to bed, except that never happens. There is no ‘just’ putting the kids to bed. They argue for every reason to stay awake. “I need water. What about another story? You didn’t read it right. I need to brush my teeth again.” Even when we do get them into bed and threaten the loss of television for the next 18 days, there’s a set of doors they call the secret passageway.

Last night, after we switched off the lights, one of them snuck into her sister’s room. They didn’t try to hide it. They were dancing and singing and laughing in their favorite costumes! I told Blair that I didn’t want to be the fun police! Would she mind? To my surprise, she swung open the door and started singing and dancing along with them. Sometimes, you just have to let the joy happen.

How much are we willing to allow joy to happen? If people act too joyfully and look like they’re having too good of a time, other people get nervous!

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. What started off as a movement of 12 disciples has swelled into a caravan of joy among the multitudes! The people are shouting ‘hosannah’ as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. You can sense the joy and anticipation in the air. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd bend Jesus’ ear, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop” (Luke 19:39). Throughout the gospel, the Pharisees grumbled against Jesus and his joyful movement of God to save sinners. In fact, Jesus often compares the work of God to joyful occasions: weddings, parties and banquets. The keepers of the law could not understand this type of work that broke boundaries and accepted people often considered unlovable.

On Palm Sunday, the disciples were swept up in the joyful commotion of God’s saving work. The keepers of the law wanted to squelch their excitement. Jesus responded, “If they were silent, the stones would cry out.”

As Christians, we are called to do what the Pharisees could not. We are called to let the joy of the Lord happen. In truth, we can all find ourselves fearful that joy can’t  happen. We can feel guilty about being joyful. But the witness of God is that joy can happen if we let it. Let the joy happen in our lives even when we can’t explain it. Let the joy happen even when we don’t think we deserve it. Let the joy happen in the sad times and the happy ones. Joy comes from the knowledge of God’s gift of salvation. Salvation has come for you and with it, joy! Hosannah, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

To help others heal, do something beautiful.

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,” (Isaiah 43:19).

This past week, I traveled with church members to Mariana, Florida. We were there to remove debris from homes and yards affected by Hurricane Michael in October. The rest of my family was on a Disney Princess Cruise. This seemed to work out well for everyone. I love mission trips. You get to shirk the routine and share communal life with others. We were not in rush. We enjoyed extended talks as we carted off limbs and tossed them by the roadside. So often, we skim the surface with people in our daily interactions.

We met some kind people. One of my favorite stories was helping a lady named Sarah. Hurricane Michael must have knocked over a hundred oak trees on her property. When we arrived, we realized our work would feel like a drop in the bucket. We had two small chain saws. The best we could do was to cut the smaller pieces and limbs and drag them to the side of the road for FEMA trucks to pick up.

After you chainsaw for a couple of hours, you begin to feel the futility. We caught a glimpse of the futility one must experience after a hurricane. We decided we’d take a break and speak to Sarah.

She said, “This has been the hardest time of my life. Michael tore up our property. My 92 year old husband has dementia. I spend 48 hours a day taking care of him. I can’t take care of the yard. He used to take care of the yard. He had such a pretty yard. But now look at it. He used to sit on the back porch and watch the flowers and birds. He was so proud, a vet too.”

One of our church members asked, “Do you think he would like some flowers to watch during the day?”

“I sure do,” she said.

“Well, I don’t want you to look out everyday and see all those uprooted ugly trees. It will remind you of the storm. I want you and your husband to look out each day and see something pretty.”

After a run to Lowes we returned with colorful flowers for pots. We moved the swing in the front yard and set it in the back. We spray-painted two faded flower planters a bright yellow. We dug around an oak stump and planted lantana and begonias. We relocated the bird bath to the center of our make-shift flower garden.

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IMG_20190402_114925407_HDRThis imagery sticks with me. We realized we could not haul away the hundred downed trees on her property. It’s likely she’ll never have those trees hauled off. But in the midst of the devastated, drab land, we could plant something beautiful to bring them joy and color. After a hurricane, plant flowers.

In Isaiah 43, the prophet is speaking to a congregation of Jewish exiles. They were living in a devastated land and faith. The Babylonians had exiled them as a means of punishment for their sins and their disobedience to God. But Isaiah proclaims hope to them in the midst of the devastation. He promises that rivers will flow in the desert and God will make a way in the wilderness.

As I think about people like Sarah, I think about people living amongst the ruins and the devastation. We can’t remove all the devastation from people’s lives, but we can bring something beautiful and inspiring to it. It could be a kind word or a visit. We can create and bring something beautiful everyday to help people find a way in the wilderness. To help others heal, do something beautiful.

That’s the imagery of Jesus’ cross. It was a devastating, ugly piece of wood planted in the ground. From this cross, God makes a way for us. On the cross, Christ forgave our sins. After three days, God leads us to the beauty of the garden where there is an empty tomb. There is resurrection and eternal life through Jesus for you.

 

The ‘e’ word.

How much time do we spend each day searching for what we lost?  If anyone needs a project, they can follow me around with a timer. I would guess at least 30 minutes.  It’s 5 minutes in the morning scouring the house for my wallet (It’s always in my back pocket from the previous day’s pair of pants). Then it’s the iPhone. “Blair, can I borrow your phone to call mine?” Every day. I spend more time looking for the remote than I do watching television. (I once found the remote in the refrigerator and the gallon of milk on the coffee table. It had been a long day parenting).  As I read Luke 15, I feel a little better.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who has ninety-nine sheep and loses one in the wilderness. This shepherd spends his whole day in search of what’s he’s lost. Right after this parable, Jesus tells us another about a woman who has ten coins and loses one. She sweeps her house in search. I can imagine her flipping over the cushions and digging through the drawers. Then Jesus tells another story about a father who loses a son.

The youngest son is fed up with his dad! Who knows the reason? I’m not sure it matters. Parents and their children will at some point find themselves at odds with one another in a fundamental way. Perhaps it’s over divergent ideas about their career path, religious views or love interest. We’re not told why this young man leaves the care of his father’s home, but he does. When this young man waste his father’s fortune, suddenly his dad is not such a bad guy. He heads home. He’s prepared his speech. “Dad, you were right. I was stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.” But before he could get the words out of his mouth, the father races to his son and throws his arms around him. He beckons his servants to fire up the Weber and throw on some veal.

The dutiful older brother has some words for his father’s magnanimous, forgiving heart. “Drop dead dad! I’ve been nothing but loyal to you. You’ve never thrown me a party. And yet you kill the fatted calf for this waste of space son of yours.” But the father won’t give up loving either of his sons. He says, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of your was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” In all three parables, the story ends with the celebration of finding what was lost.

We get a picture of what God does every day. God searches for what God has lost. We are God’s possessions. When we go astray, God feels the intensity of losing what belongs to him.

Just like us, God searches everyday for what God loses. But there is no need to follow God with a timer. God never stops. This story has made me ask myself a different a question. “How much time am I spending each day helping God search for what God has lost?” God came to seek out and save the lost. God came for sinners who have gone astray.

The heart of God is to search for the lost. It’s the ‘e’ word. Evangelism! Evangelism is a loaded word for many people. It conjures up people on street corners at sporting events with bullhorns. Whatever baggage ‘evangelical’ carries with it, the church must reclaim it. Evangelism is the good news that Christ who has come to seek out the lost and welcome home the weary and forgotten.

It might be good to put a timer on our evangelical efforts. The good news is that the more we search, the more we find. The more we find, the more we celebrate!