#MidweekPrayer July 9, 2014

tracks 2 watermarkEternal God, you are the light, life, and strength of them that turn towards you. Grant us grace to abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

We praise you for the way you have provided: the joys of each day, the strength to handle every burden, the light to travel through dark places, and the wisdom to guide through confusion.

To your goodness we commend those whom are precious in our sight. Be the inspiration for the young men and women that they may face the future with confidence. Keep them from traveling false paths. Guard them from evil and make their ways prosperous.

Place your healing hand on those who are suffering. Lift them above anxiety and worry. Grant them the calm assurance to know they are your children and you hold them close.

Brighten the path for those whose future seems dark. Lead them from valleys of depression to heights of faith and trust. Send waves of hope into their hearts.

We offer our praise and prayers in the all-prevailing name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Students Making a Difference in Cherokee County

groupArmed with paint brushes, rollers, and ladders, two-hundred students and adult volunteers will converge onto eighteen different work sites throughout Cherokee County beginning on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. The Nehemiah Project is entering its seventh year. It is a four-day event that focuses on evening worship, dynamic messages and community service. All rising seventh- through 12th-graders are invited to participate.

Efforts to voluntarily transform the community have produced many blessings for the homeowners and the students serving on the projects. More than just the smearing on of paint, the homeowners experience the love and laughter of the students working on the homes. The teens discover the joy of serving others and loving their neighbors. ladder 2

This year’s theme is “Inside Out” and is based on the words of Jesus, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Tyler Greene of Wilmore, Kentucky will be bringing the message each evening that will reinforce the theme. Matt Price of Nashville, Tennessee will lead the students in worship. The students will be housed at Reinhardt University.

If you would like to participate next year or have more questions about the Nehemiah Project please contact Heather Shelton at heather@libertyhillumc.org or call 678.493.8920. Check out Liberty Hill Church – Canton on Facebook.

Mixing Religion and Politics

religion-politics-ROLEHere is a little unknown fact about me: I once enjoyed engaging in national and international politics. I would watch CSPAN and enjoy it. I got into the national debates. I was entertained by state politics. I started college determined to major in Political Science. I was set on working in the field of politics. I did not want to be a politician but I wanted to work on a political team. I had ambition to be a behind the scenes person. I wanted to be the one who done the research and put together reports. I ended up getting a minor in Political Science and a major in Philosophy.

Like almost every other American, I had bought into the lie that religion was a private affair. Religion deals with my inner experience. It helps shape my values. But it does nothing for the real world, I grew up being convinced. It doesn’t belong in economics, education, or politics. Faith and religion should not claim a place in the public arena because that is where the experts are needed with their “facts” of how to run the world. The Church’s job is the salvation of souls not the shaping of the world.

Call it a renewing of the mind or willingness to take the Scriptures seriously, but something changed my perspective. The Old Testament tells the story of God calling forth a people to make public God’s reign through them. These people were to be a “light to the nations” and be a sign of God’s presence in the world. They were to live out their election as God’s chosen people in all aspects of their life in hopes that all the nations would come under the reign of God. When they forgot their call and rebel, God sends them into exile. And yet, even in foreign lands they were to live as God’s people. Prophets were sent to remind them of their identity and that God’s promise of a coming messiah was still on the horizon.

With this story in the background, Jesus appears calling together a new people in a new Zion, the Church; people from all walks of life, from every nation, tribe, and language coming together to form the new Israel. We are people who are no longer strangers but brothers and sisters.

I have considered what it means that the religious and political forces were the ones who crucified Jesus. I began to ask myself what it truly means to declare “Jesus is lord?” It has to be more than a private affair. The power of Christ is above all “rule and authority and power and dominion, and above ever name that is named,” according to Paul in Ephesians (Eph. 1:21). There will be a day when he will rule from the kingdom of God after “every ruler and every authority and power” has been destroyed (I Cor. 15:24). Jesus is the “head of every ruler and authority” (Col. 2:10). If his authority and reign is above all other powers, where must my loyalty be found? If in the end of the ages, “Every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10) then I wanted to be serving the one whose kingdom is eternal.

It is clear that the Church is political. There was a Roman law called cultus privatus that gave freedom to every religion to pursue itself strictly in manners of personal and spiritual salvation. Religions in the first century Roman world flourished under this protected law. It was permitted because it did not challenge the political order. However, why did the early Church refuse the protection? Why did they continue to speak out publicly about their faith? Why did the Church choose to go head-to-head with the Roman government instead of keeping their faith private? Why risk being torn a part limb to limb by wild animals in public display? Why risk losing home, children, and life? Because they understood that the statement “Jesus is lord” is as much a political statement as it is a religious statement. As a matter of fact, declaring “Jesus is lord” brings the political and religious together. There can be no longer be any dividing of the two.

The Apostle Peter writes a letter to a group of Churches in Asia. These are Christians who have come from a Pagan background. They were told to “not be conformed” to their former ways (1:14) and reminded that they have been ransomed from “the futile way of their ancestors” (1:18). They have already spent enough of their life living outside the will of God (4:3). There seems to be those who are ridiculing them for their new life (4:4). But they are called to remain faithful to the one who has called them.

It is hard to remain faithful when they are undergoing suffering. These early Christians are living as minorities in a world dominated by different religions and a political structure that does not see them as outstanding citizens. Matter of fact, they are viewed as  and unruly to the state. They are not to be trusted. The Christians are outcast and not welcomed as citizens. Flash mobs would ransack their businesses, destroy their homes, and leave them beaten on the streets. And yet, if they had chosen to simply stay silent and keep their faith private then they could live in peace along with all the other religions and differing worldviews of the time.

They understand themselves as people who live in the in-between. They live between the “already” – God’s reign through Jesus – and the “not yet” – the completion of that reign is still to come. They live as people with a hopeful expectation. This stance alienates them from their world. For wherever they live, they are not at home, for their home is defined by the kingdom of God. They understand their inheritance is “kept in heaven” (I Peter 1:3). It is a city “that is yet to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The early Jesus followers knew that their “citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that [they] are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20). It is a city that will one day descend as they are taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” Because of this they cannot refuse to proclaim it. They cannot refuse to stay silent. The kingdom of God is coming. The reign of God is on its way. Jesus is truly lord rather we believe it, see it, or acknowledge it.

The truth of Jesus is a public truth. A private truth for a limited number of people is no truth at all. It is either true for everyone or a lie. If we think the truth of Jesus is simply a private manner, then it will be only a manner of time that we will refuse to live by this truth at all. Genuine faith living by the truth of Christ must be brought into the public arena of politics and culture. It must be held up against every aspect of human life. If we choose to keep faith away from the place where decisions are made about how life is governed and shaped, then it will make no difference even in the private life of the individual.

On this Memorial Day Weekend we take time to recognize the sacrifice and duty of those who serve the nation. I am truly thankful for the ones whose commitments have given us the freedoms to enjoy our hot dogs, chips, families, and friends on this weekend. But as a follower of Jesus, I recognize that this nation is not the final authority. It along with all the other nations of the world will one day bend its knee to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, Jesus is bringing together a people to be a sign of his coming reign.

The Church is the gathering of God’s people who proclaim in public the lordship of Christ. We serve as a witness to the reign of Jesus. We assert that God, not nations rule the world. The boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend all other boundaries. The Church is political in declaring that Jesus is lord. For in this declaration we are saying all other powers and authorities must submit to him. Haeurwas and Willimon in The Resident Alien say, “The political task of the Church is to simply be the Church.” The world is shown through the politics of the Church that forgiveness, love, and justice is possible in a world filled with hatred, indifference, and division. The politics of the Church is going the extra mile and loving enemies. The politics of the Church is loving the neighbor regardless if the neighbor has the right papers or legal status. The politics of the Church is to live as free people but not at the expense of others.

Leslie Newbigin, missiologist, once asked, “Can one who goes the way of the Cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?” Other words, “Can one be a follower of Jesus and serve the politics of a particular nation?” “Can one sit in the seat of power and speak on behalf of the powerless?” There is no easy answer. It is one that requires a lot of prayer and wisdom. I suppose our politicians who claim the name Christian will say you can. Some will even say it is their calling.

For the rest of us, our role as followers of Jesus is to constantly remind them of truth. When they start talking in generalize terms about justice and love; it is our role as a church to remind them of the story of Jesus and what love and justice truly look like. When they start talking about peace that it means more than the absent of conflict. When the men and women of politics start saying they are on the side of the poor that the needs of the poor are not simply measured by the wants of the rich. So, you see, I guess I never left the world of politics when I entered ministry and neither have any of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.

A Word to Graduates

graduate capsIt is the season of graduations. Preschool kids are preparing for kindergarten. Middle Schoolers are moving up to High School. High School graduates are planing for college, vocational school, or getting a job in the workforce. College seniors will soon receive a diploma and told to go invest it in our capitalistic world.

Honored guest will tell our graduates to “reach for the stars,” “soar high,” and “never give up.” Some of the speakers will attempt to be quirky. Others will strive to be awe-inspiring. And then others will fumble with their words in an effort to say something that has not already been said or found on a commencement speech downloaded to YouTube.

In 1743 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, published the General Rules. It was a guide for the practice of daily discipleship for Christians who called themselves Methodist. There are three rules in all: Do no harm; Do good; and stay in love with God.  The rules seem like a good guideline for graduating seniors. Do no harm is a great principle to apply to those about to enter the world of college dorms. Do good seems to be excellent advice for the college graduate entering the workforce. Out of the three, stay in love with God, could be the most challenging to a college student who claims faith in Jesus.

It is hard to stay in love with God in a world filled with so many different things competing for our love. In the safety of home, youth group, and Christian camps it is easy to affirm our love for God. But move away from the comforts of home and the security of friends who believe the way we believe makes keeping our relationship with God a challenge.  For some students, college will be a time when condom dispensers and keg parties will insist more love than your faith. But do not be seduced. Used condoms and empty kegs are a cheap substitute for love.

Don’t let knowledge become a substitute for wisdom. Don’t make an idol out of knowledge. Soak up the knowledge but do not let it drown out the wisdom. Leave room in your studies for the awe-inspiring and mysterious. When studying the enormity of the universe in Astronomy leave space in your life to be astonished. When examining the complexity of Biology leave room to be baffled. When studying History remember it always repeats itself. When reading through the great works of literature allow your imagination opportunity to roam. When exploring Art give space for your heart to expand. To be a Christian in college means staying in love with God while growing in knowledge of God’s world.

No one may be asking you to bow down to golden statues. But that does not mean that idolatry does not exist. Every time we put something or someone in the place of God we have created an idol. If you are in a relationship and find yourself becoming someone who you do not recognize, it may be that you have mad an idol of the relationship. If you find yourself in a situation where you are putting aside your values, you may have made an idol of the experience. Golden statues will eventually come crumbling down and those who bow at their feet are the ones who get hurt. Stay in love with God.

The book of Daniel is written as encouragement for Hebrews facing persecution. The first six chapters provide heroic role models of Jews who thrive because they remain faithful to Jewish law while living in a foreign land. Chapters seven through twelve hold out promise for future deliverance in the new kingdom of God for those who remain faithful in the face of persecution. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are three of the heroic young men who refused to back down under pressure of a foreign culture. They were taken as exiles from their homeland into Babylon. They were strong, competent, and intelligent young men. When king Nebuchadnezzar ordered everyone in the Babylonian kingdom to bow down and worship at a golden statue, these three young men refused. They rejected the king’s orders. They stood their ground and planted their feet on the belief that only God should be worshipped. The king was furious. He made plans to throw them in an overheated furnace if they continued to disobey the orders. They did not back down. The king asked, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands? (3:15). They answered, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (3:19).

Nebuchadnezzar was so infuriated that he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal. Then he had the boys thrown into the furnace. As the king watched expectantly for the boys to burn in the fire, he was astonished at what he saw. He asked his servants, “Did we not throw three men into the fire?” “Why do I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god” (3:25). He ordered the men out of the fire and they came walking out like they had simply been in enjoying themselves in a sauna.

For some of you going off to college or entering the workforce, it will seem like you are walking into a fiery furnace. The pressure will be tremendous. The heat is real. The stress that the slightest wrong decision will get you burned. The tension always exists to bow to the golden statues than face the fires of ridicule.

It is why one of our non-negotiable values must always be to stay in love with God. When Peter was flogged and told by the religious leaders to no longer speak the message of the gospel, he responds, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). Jesus warns, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28). As followers of Jesus, we have not been given a spirit of fear “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Some years ago Fred Craddock moved to Atlanta where he began his work as a professor at Candler School of Theology. One Saturday afternoon he had his first experience with the hype of a Georgia Bulldog football game. It had been a great season for the Bulldogs; they had won all of their games. After the game, Craddock and his wife were invited to a victory party at someone’s house. It was a nice home in Northwest Atlanta with a large circular driveway out front and everybody had bumper stickers on their cars which read, “How ’bout them dawgs!” While the host and hostess were fixing the drinks and the hors d’oeuvres, Craddock and his wife stood in the living room talking with some of the other guests about Hershel Walker and the way he ran, and the quarterback and Coach Dooley and everybody’s favorite play. There was a woman about forty or forty-five just dripping in jewels, and right there in the middle of the living room she stood up on a chair and said, “I want everybody’s attention. I’m tired of all of this talk about Hershel Walker and the quarterback and the defensive line. They had absolutely nothing to do with today’s victory. Jesus gave us the victory! Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask for I will give you,’ so I said, ‘Jesus, we need this one bad.’ So let’s praise the Lord for this victory today and stop talking about the players and the coach.” And then she sat down.

On recalling the occasion, Professor Craddock said, “Have you ever been some place and wished you weren’t there?” He said, “I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there leaning against the wall and looking down at my shoes and wondering whether any of the players on the other team had prayed and what was wrong with their prayers. Some of the men went to the kitchen, so Craddock followed them. “Do you think she’s drunk?” said one of them.” “Don’t ask me,” Craddock said, “we just moved here to Atlanta. Do people act like that here all the time?” Just then the hostess came into the kitchen to fill a tray of food and said, “If that woman doesn’t shut her mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.” And Craddock, with more than a little sarcasm in his voice said, “What’s the matter, aren’t you a Christian too?” “Of course, I’m a Christian,” said the hostess, “I just don’t believe in flapping my mouth.”

College is a gift. In a world of deep injustice, violence, poverty, and death it is remarkable that space and time can be given so that some people can study and reflect. The world does not need anyone else “flapping” their mouths at the struggles of the world. We have enough socially starved media junkies giving us sound bites. We need real answers. We need genuine reflection. We need thoughtful consideration. This is why Christians go to college.

Some of you are thinking, “I’m going to go to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than my parents had. I am going to go to college so I can make a lot of money.” But you are a follower of Jesus. You are not going to college to make more money. At least you are not going as a Jesus follower. You are going because the world needs people who are not afraid to tell the truth. The world of economics need economist who are moral. We need scientists who know the difference between fact and truth. We need doctors who look at patients as humans to be cared for and not problems to be solved. We need lawyers who think critically about the role of justice and mercy in society. We need business women who believe in more than the bottom line. We need pastors who care more about the kingdom of God than they do their own kingdom. As you go off to college, I want you to see it as a great opportunity. It is a calling. You are being called to reflect, consider, and study the world as someone made in the image of the Creator.

After he had betrayed his best friend, Peter could be found fishing on the Sea of Galilee. It was on those shores after his resurrection that Jesus found Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter had denied Jesus three times and three times he is asking, “Do you love me?” Jesus did not ask, “Can you prove it?” Simply, “Do you love me?” When the three Hebrew boys found themselves staring down the fiery furnace for denying to bow down to the golden statue, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter” (3:16).

As you walk onto the campus of a college or into a board room or halls of a classroom, the world will be trying to put you in defense mold. Your faith will be questioned. Your hope will be doubted. Don’t give up. Stay connected to the faith. Keep in community with the Church. Surround yourself by other Jesus followers. And stay in love with God. It is not a matter of trying harder. It is simply remembering the love that you are already in possession of by knowing that God loves you.

Lost Art of Faithfulness

ruthlargeHave you ever made a commitment that you later regretted? Have you ever said, “Yes,” when you wish you had not? Have you ever obligated yourself to a particular activity and later been sorry that you had? A few years ago half way through the season, my son was ready to back out of soccer. He did not like it. But we had made a commitment and I wanted him to understand the importance of following through on a decision. We stuck with it until the end of the year and had a great season.

During his ministry, Jesus was being followed by large crowds. He wants them to understand the dedication required in being a disciple. He asks, “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish’”(Luke 14:28-30).

We look pretty foolish when we make promises we cannot keep. Unfulfilled promises cause resentment. When we fail to keep our commitments it makes us seem as lacking dependability. It is easier to get into a relationship than out of a relationship. It is easier to commit to do something than it is to get out of doing something. Before we say, “Yes,” we need to consider the cost. What will be required of us? Will we be able to fulfill the commitment? If not, it is better to say, “No,” and walk away with our integrity than it is to say, “Yes,” and be seen as someone who cannot keep promises. Because once we commit it is important to stay committed until the end.

The story of Ruth begins with a Jewish family in a foreign land. Naomi’s husband takes his wife and two sons to Moab when a famine comes to the land of Israel. While in Moab he dies and his two sons die, leaving behind three widows. Naomi decides to go home to Bethlehem. She tells her daughter-in-laws to stay behind in their homeland where they are known and can find safety. One decides to stay. However, Ruth makes it clear that she will never leave Naomi. She says, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth is totally committed to Naomi. She even declares, “Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:17)! Ruth is loyal. She is making a promise that even death will not separate her.

Ruth is choosing a new people, a new ethnic identity, along with a new faith. She is making a promise with no certainty of the future. Safety is not guaranteed and yet, she agrees to be devoted to Naomi. No promise of a certain future. No guarantees of security. She vows to stay with her and even be buried with Naomi. She makes this commitment to her mother-in-law. Naomi is a bitter old woman who finds it difficult to see any hope in the future. She says to the women in Bethlehem, “I come back empty” (Ruth 1:21).

Ruth is a Moabite. The people of Moab were seen as enemies of Israel during the days of Judges and the Kings. The book of Deuteronomy says they shall be refused admittance into the assembly of the Lord because they did not offer food or water to the people of Israel on their journey out of Egypt (Deut. 23:3 – 5). The Hebrew people were told of the Moabites, “never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you life (Deut. 23:6). There was genuine hatred between the Israelites and the Moabites. And yet, Ruth, a Moabite, agrees to stay with Naomi, an Israelite, until the very end. Ruth makes a promise with no guarantees and will be loyal to the promise till death.

Once they settle in Bethlehem, Ruth goes looking for work to support her and her mother-in-law. She finds it in the field of one who turns out to be a relative of Naomi. The owner of the field, Boaz, is told the story of Ruth and all that she has done for her mother-in-law. He is amazed at her loyalty. He invites her to continue to glean from his field and says, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before” (Ruth 2:11). Her faithfulness is a testimony to her character. She is seen as someone who is authentic and true to her promises.

Faithfulness is a matter of if you say it, you do it. Dr Seuss puts it this way, “I mean what I said and I said what I meant.” A loyal person is a person who can be counted on to see something through. Their reliability does not have to be questioned. The love of a dependable person is steadfast. It is seen as constant. The integrity of a dependable person holds up under pressure. They can be counted on to see a project through.

When someone mentions your name would they use the words “loyal,” “dependable,” or “trustworthy,” to describe you? Ruth’s simple loyalty to her mother-in-law created a chain of events that allowed her to be the grandmother to King David. It was from the Davidic line that Jesus would eventually be born. Her small act of faithfulness gave her a part to play in the redemption of the world.  Jesus says, “Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters” (Luke 16:10). What one thing do you need to be faithful with today? What one promise do you need to keep? What one decision do you need to follow through on? Don’t let your failure to be faithful in the small things keep you from missing out on the blessings that God has for you in life.

 

The Hope of Friendship

prison cellFriendships are something that many of us take for granted. However, they are essential to our well-being. As social beings, we are dependent on our relationships with others to fully understand ourselves and our world. Friendships can be the foundation for self-esteem, good times, and encouragement.

It is obvious that the Apostle Paul went through tremendous struggle in his life and ministry. He started out with a venomous hatred toward Christianity and its followers. After a dramatic conversion, he became its most outspoken proponent. He was beaten on numerous occasions, shipwrecked, snake bitten, ran out of towns, and imprisoned. He speaks of living under constant pain described as a “thorn in the flesh.”

In spite of all the suffering he endured, his faith was consistently encouraged by his friendships. The letter to the Church in Philippi is a great illustration to the importance that friendship had on his welfare. He begins the letter by telling them of his constant “praying with joy” for all of them because of their “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:5). The fellowship (GK. Koinonia) that the Apostle shares with the Christian community in Philippi is a regular theme of the letter. He was able to endure the persecution of preaching the gospel because of the confidence he held in knowing the community was sharing with him in his suffering and in their prayers.

At one point in the letter it seems that the Apostle may have even been contemplating his life coming to an end. He says, “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Phil. 1:23, 24). We must remember that suicide in first century Greco-Roman world was sometimes considered an honorable act. Socrates, Plato, and the Cynics all refer to suicide as at times an admirable decision. In the Old Testament stories of Samson (Judges 16:28-31), Saul (1 Samuel 31:1-4), and others suicide is spoken of in a neutral telling.

I am not sure if this is Paul’s struggle. I imagine the challenges he has faced in life – writing this letter from a Roman jail in locks and chains – has got to put a lot of pressure on his mental condition. The one thing we can be sure of is that the joy he writes about comes from the assurance of being surrounded by friends that remember him in their prayers and the sharing in the gospel. Life lived together is always better than life lived alone. After writing of his tension to be with the Lord or remain with his friends, he concludes, “I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again” (Phil. 1:25, 26). Friendships generate hope and hope is the breath of life.

I Don’t Know What I Believe: Faith & Family (Mother’s Day)

(Taken from message preached at Liberty Hill Church on Mother’s Day May 05, 2014)

I Dont Know What I Believe no dateIn May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. This years recognition marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day being officially celebrated in the United States.

There is a lot of talk about the family. The cultural image of family is consistently changing. Some will say this is a sign of the breakdown of the family. We debate the meaning of marriage and family. It seems no matter what side of the political spectrum you find yourself; everyone wants to be “pro-family.”

It seems Christians have a huge interest in the family. We all agree that family values are essential even if we don’t all agree on what those ideals should include. When our teenager makes a choice that puts friends over family, we encourage her to remember, “Blood is thicker than water.” Family is always more important than the friends you make. Friends come and go, family sticks around. If we find ourselves against the wall when attempting to define the importance of family, we pull out the “what would Jesus do card.”

The problem is Jesus may not be the best person to help us hold up our definition of family. His own birth was scandalous and left everyone in the village questioning who the father was. When he was twelve years old, he ran off from his parents. When they finally discovered him in the temple, his mother rebukes him, “Child, why have you treated us like this” (Lk. 2:48)? He replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (2: 49)? Someone needs to teach this kid some respect. Hasn’t he ever heard of the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and mother”? At one point, Jesus and his disciples were going along the road and a would-be disciple agrees to follow Jesus. But he says, “First let me go and bury my father.” Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:59, 60). Jesus did not focus on the family. He focused on the kingdom of God.

In the third chapter of Mark, Jesus calls twelve men to be his disciples. After designating the twelve, he goes home. A huge crowd surrounds him and starts accusing Jesus of being out of his mind. His mom and brothers get word of the madness and try to go and restrain him. Jesus defends himself among the religious leaders. While teaching inside a house, his mom and brothers come to try to speak to him. They stand outside and send someone in to let Jesus know that they have arrived. “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you,” he is told. Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3: 31 – 35).

For Jesus, family is not about blood. It is not about sharing the same DNA. Family is, according to Jesus, about the reign of God. Jesus’ family is those who chose to be around him, with him, and to follow him. Jesus is redefining family in terms of faith. It is doing the will of God that is more important than birthright and family connections. He is calling us to a vision of family that is deeper and richer than simply a group of people who share the same last name. He is not attacking the family as much as he is expanding the concept of family.

This was as revolutionary in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. In his time there was no honor without family honor. There was no real lasting significance without the leaving of an heir. Your family origin determined your whole life. Your personhood was wrapped up in your family identity. Your future was dependent on your family.

His mom, brothers, and sisters were so immersed in this conventional way of thinking that they were blind to the new family that Jesus was establishing around him. For those who have made family an idol, Jesus warns, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25).

Before you begin to think that I am saying Jesus is anti-family we need to remember that he has some strict words on divorce. In a culture that places no value on children, he was very committed to their well-being. He says, “Unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Jesus also warns, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). When his disciples tried to block mothers from bringing their children to Jesus; he replied, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matt. 19:14).

Biblical family values affirm that the waters of baptism run thicker than blood. Baptism is an adoption into a new family. The writer of Galatians declares, “As many as you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27 – 29). In Jesus we are all “children of God through faith” (3:26).

For most of us the family unit is one of joy and blessing. But for others it is a scary place of abuse and neglect. For many of us the waters of baptism are an adoption into a larger family that makes life more broad and purposeful. For others the waters of baptism is a rescue from family. It represents a new start. For the one who suffered years of shame that comes from carrying a particular name, the waters of baptism give you a new identity. Regardless of how we come to the water, baptism is an adoption into a new family. It is within this family that we are thrown together in fellowship and through the grace of God we grow into calling one another brothers and sisters.

It has been said, “Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope that God has not abandoned this world” (Stanley Haeurwas). The raising of children from the perspective of the reign of God becomes about discipleship. It is more than simply having an heir to the family name. It is about making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. Family becomes missional. Family units become change units. Love of family becomes love for justice and hope in a world where people are treated unfair, children are abandoned, and widows are neglected.

For the Christian, the raising of children is discipleship. The loving of spouse is connected to the love of God. The nurture of the family is for the growth of the kingdom of God. Family reunions become more than covered dishes and gossip. They are gatherings to plot the revolution of God’s reign. Jesus did not focus on the family. He kept his eye on the reign of God which gave him a vision of family that included the poor, neglected, and weak. If we would do the same, it would be the greatest gift we give to our children.

 

When Life Gets Bitter

baby lemon faceI remember the first time we gave my son a lemon slice. His nose snarled. His lips puckered. His tongue shot out in disgust. We all sat around laughing while he made a face of horror. The old adage says, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Of course, it means when life is sour adding a little sugar makes things better. I really wish it was that easy.

Bad things happen to good people. Divorce is real. Friends move away. Grandparents get sick. Jobs are loss. Rumors get spread. Death stings. Life is full of challenges. Our hearts get broken. Tears are shed. What do we do when life gets bitter? How do we deal with life when we are left with a sour taste in our mouth?

The book of Ruth is about a family that deals with poverty, famine, and death. It begins as a tale full of loss but ends as a story of hope. Elimelech moves his wife and two sons from Bethlehem to Moab because of a severe famine. As soon as they get settled in Moab, Elimelech dies and Naomi, his wife, is left to care for their two sons. They take for themselves Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. After ten years, the two sons tragically die and all three women are left as widows. As a foreigner, Naomi has no ability to take care of herself and her daughter-in-laws. She decides to go home. She tells her daughter-in-laws to stay in their homeland. Orpah agrees but Ruth chooses to go back with Naomi. She says, “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16).

When the two of them come to Bethlehem they are greeted by the town. Naomi replies “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (1:20, 21). Naomi in Hebrew means “pleasant.” Mara means “bitter.” She says, “No longer call me pleasant. Call me bitter.” Naomi’s passage is down a road of pain and suffering. She leaves with plenty but claims to come back empty.

Naomi teaches us something about dealing with pain. We must be honest. Pain is real. It hurts. Pain leaves us feeling alone. It makes us bitter. Pain takes away our laughter and replaces it with tears. Naomi was not ashamed of her hurt. She was willing to name it and call it what it was.

Through her story we discover that each person deals with hurt differently based on their life experiences. Sometimes we look at someone’s response to a situation and we dismiss it. We downplay the wounds in others based on our life experiences. But we all have not travelled the same path. It is important to be sensitive to the brokenness of others.

While visiting a friend, my youngest son was attacked by a large dog. His reaction to dogs now is one of fear. If a stray dog wonders in our yard, he runs in the house and locks himself in the bathroom. When we are playing out in the front yard, he is always observant of any dogs in the area. If he hears a bark, he will ask, “Where is that coming from?”

I grew up around dogs and in the rural area I lived we had strays wonder in and out of our yard on a daily basis. Some came so regularly that I would give them names. A big black dog strolling down the road does not elicit the same response from me that it does from my youngest son. Our life experiences will always shape our response to the way we deal with pain and suffering.

Pain makes us feel isolated. It keeps our focus narrow and limits our perspective on life. When we are going through suffering, we sometimes think we are the only person that has ever gone through this or that no one understands how we feel. It would be a mistake to think that we are going through it alone. No amount of pain and suffering can separate us from the God who suffers with us. The Apostle Paul asks, “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, suffering, and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger and death?” He answers his own question, “I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 5:35, 38).

Naomi was honest about her pain because she was confident in God. God’s answer to suffering is not standing outside of it but instead entering into the pain. In all the kinds of life that Jesus lived, he chose the life of suffering. He did it so we would not be alone. Who suffers with us? God does. God has not forsaken us.

I know when we are going through a difficult time that it can seem that we are going through it alone. It might even feel like no one cares. Naomi felt that way. She says, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” She says this all the while Ruth is standing by her side. She could not see the sign of hope right in front of her eyes. Hope in the midst of suffering comes from unlikely places. Don’t be so wrapped up in your pain that you miss it. Don’t be throwing yourself a pity party while your redemption is around the corner.

It is interesting that Naomi and her family leave Bethlehem due to a famine. She returns at the beginning of harvest season. Even when we feel empty and abandoned, the blessing could be on the horizon if we have eyes to see.

Jesus among Other Religions

(excerpt from sermon preached at http://www.libertyhillumc.org)

I Dont Know What I Believe no dateThere are a variety of toothpaste brands on the market today. Some trying to convince us that there “whitening” power is stronger than other brands. Various brands claim to prevent cavities with regular use. A few assert that they will leave our breath smelling refreshed. With so many different types of toothpaste on the market, how do we decide which is best for us? Are you loyal to a particular brand? Is the toothpaste you use now the same toothpaste you grew up using? “It has worked for all these years,” you declare. “Why switch now?” Are you a bottom dollar kind of shopper? Do you purchase whatever is on sale? Or are you the adventurous type? Do you switch up just to be different? Are you the type of person that goes out and tries the latest thing on the market? If “bacon flavor” toothpaste is advertised on television, will you be the first person in line to purchase?

If we had to be honest with ourselves, we view Christianity as one brand among many in a shopping mall filled with choices. There are no longer oceans separating Christians among other religions. Muslims, Jewish, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, and Christians rub shoulders on a daily basis. Our children attend school with other children who have a different belief system. Our Facebook feed is filled with friends who believe differently than we do. How do we engage our faith among the different belief systems?

Many have taken the buying a particular brand of toothpaste among the variety of options type of approach. We have always used this brand and it has worked for my family. We are not willing to switch. Others will scream false advertising among the different brands that offer grand promises. “Crest is the only brand that can whiten teeth.’ we proclaim. Of course, there will be some that will always go for the cheapest and some will jump on the latest fad.

As long as we see our faith as one option among many, we will continue to find it a challenge to give witness to Jesus. Two extremes have developed over time in our discussion of Jesus among other religions. One approach has been to reduce religion to a common denominator. This pluralist approach has tried to find the common thread that runs through all religions. For some this has been seen as love. A few have defined it as justice while some have assumed it is the mystical experience with the Grand Other. The other extreme has preached condemnation of different beliefs. They seek to destroy all other religions in an attempt to “prove” that they are correct. Neither of these approaches are faithful. The biblical view of engaging people of different beliefs is one of a witness.

First century Christianity was born into a religious plural world. The Greco-Roman world was filled with differing faiths and worship of a variety of gods. The early Christians had to figure out how they would proclaim the message that Jesus is lord among the differing worldviews. It was not developed in the ivory towers of higher learning. Instead it was fleshed out along the streets, synagogues, political structures, and religious world of their neighbors. In Acts 17 the apostle Paul and his friend Silas are giving witness in Thessalonica in a synagogue. A few Jewish listeners are convinced in his message that Jesus is the messiah along with some Gentiles. But others are not accepting. They get angry and cause uproar. The believers usher Paul and Silas out of town by night. They don’t stay long in the next town because of the indictment against them. Paul’s friends feel it is important to his safety to get him out of town. They lead him to Athens and tell him to stay there until he can be joined by Timothy and Silas.

The ancient Athenians have been described by historians as intellectually curious and very religious. It was the cultural center of ancient Greece. Athens was the place where culture, religion, and politics emerged to form an eclectic population. While waiting on his friends to arrive, Paul takes in the sights. He tours the city. When he finds shrines dedicated to different gods, he begins to discuss their existence with whomever and wherever he can. He goes to the synagogue, the marketplace, and eventually to the very same spot where Socrates stood and was condemned for teaching a “new” thought. The Areopagus stood on a hill overlooking the city. It was the place where official business was discussed. The name of the group took on the name of the building. Paul stands before the Areopagus proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. We are told some scoffed, some wanted to hear more, and a few actually believed. Despite these few individual conversions, no local community was founded in Athens. We have no letter from Paul to Athens, nor does he mention the city again in any of his other writings. The Apostle does what he has simply been commissioned to do. He gives witness to Jesus among the Athenians. Paul cannot speak of the gospel without making reference to the particularity of Jesus. He connects the significance of the Jesus story with humanity’s yearning for knowledge and understanding of God. He does it by quoting from the writings of his listeners. He does not dismiss their convictions but instead uses their belief as a starting point in explaining the Jesus story.

We cannot give witness to Jesus if we cannot find a way to help those who we are telling find a way to make sense of it according to their hopes and their search for truth. The gospel is always contextualized. One gospel writer begins, “The word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The same Word spoken that brought the world into existence and sustains creation has now taken on flesh. In Isaiah 45:15 God is described as one who “hides himself.” The believer in Jesus declares this to be no longer true. God is one who “has become flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message). The faith of a Jesus follower is one of dialogue. It presupposes a commitment to the gospel while at the same time holds to the love of neighbor. If I reduce my witness to one faith among many, the dialogue becomes meaningless chatter. If I refuse to take my neighbor’s faith seriously, then I become arrogant and the witness becomes worthless. The gospel witness must hold both of these realities in tension as the story of Jesus is told. The central symbol for the follower of Jesus is the cross. The cross teaches that the place of connection with others is the point of greatest humility. By putting my faith at risk in loving my neighbor, I confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Jesus and not religion, is where our hope must be found. Religion is not the means of salvation. Jesus is the way, truth, and the life. All religions, including Christianity, are held in judgment under the cross.

The Church does not possess absolute truth. We are a mixed bag of sheep and goats. We are filled with saints and sinners.  The Church serves as a witness to the One who is truth. Our commitment is to point people in a particular direction who are on the search for truth. Truth is not a doctrine, worldview, or a particular religious experience. Truth is a person.

The quest for truth always requires asking the right question. “What happens to non-Christians when they die?” is the wrong question. It is only a question that God can answer. In John 10:16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” In his conversation with a religious leader Jesus compares the redeeming work of the Spirit like wind that “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). The gospel of Mark records a story of Jesus encounter with a young, rich, and religious man. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus speaks of the challenges involved, the disciples look at him and ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies, “with humans it is impossible, but not for God: for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:17-27).

Jesus’ main concern was not about getting us into heaven. It was about getting heaven into us. We are taught to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and “Thy kingdom come.” As followers of Jesus we are not asked to tell a plan of salvation, we are asked to give witness to a gospel story. “Where I go when I die” fits into the story but it alone is not the gospel story. When “Where do I go when I die?” becomes the only question we ask, the gospel story becomes simply another religious story among a supermarket of other stories.

How do we serve as a witness among other religious traditions? We begin not with condemnation but with hope. We share not propositions of a plan of salvation that differs from other plans of salvation but we tell a story. We tell the story of Jesus. It is a story that begins with the creation of the world and finds its completion when Jesus is glorified to the ends of the earth. As a witness, I am to tell how His story invites me to participate by loving my neighbor. We are storytellers invited to tell the story of God making God self known in the person of Jesus and inviting everyone to participate in His kingdom. Our message is not simply a salvation message. It is about the One who brings salvation.

I Don’t Know What I Believe: Faith and Science

(excerpt of message preached at Liberty Hill UMC in Canton, GA)

I Dont Know What I Believe no dateC.S. Lewis, Christian apologist of the 20th century and author of the Chronicles of Narnia, was an atheist turn Christian. He said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I must start out this message with my own prejudice. I agree with C.S. Lewis. I believe Christian faith gives us the lens through which we can see the world more clearly. I believe as Paul said to the church in Colossae, “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). I affirm with the prophet Isaiah, “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). I am convinced that Paul is correct when he says, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20).

I am convinced that there is no knowing without believing. Believing is our way of knowing the world. It is why Jesus told his disciples to follow him before they fully understood who he was. If we will come to believe in Jesus then we will discover that in him is hidden all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). By indwelling the Christian story we come to see the world as it is supposed to be realized.

I know there are some who disagree with me. Some who say this makes knowledge too subjective. I fear a worldview that puts the search for truth through universal doubt. It leads down a dead-end road. The scientific view of doubting until something can be proven by empirical data can only lead to universal skepticism. It is a world where people like Friedrich Nietzsche say, “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It drives one toward hopelessness.

Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion” asserts that real scientist cannot be Christians. His reasoning is because being a scientist carries within its worldview a disbelief in God. The world must be viewed strictly in a natural sense without any interference from the supernatural. Dawkins and the New Atheist have a rather mechanical view of the universe.

However, not all scientist hold to strictly natural views of the world. Sir James Jean, English physicists and astronomer declared after careful observation, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” With new discoveries in the scientific world, more and more are convinced that there seems to be a consciousness behind the creation of the material world. Many scientists are denying the fact that nonliving material could create a living reality. As we continue to peer deeper into space, we can declare with the Psalmist, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).

Science is not an enemy of faith. One can be a scientist and hold the view that there is a purpose behind all creation. The church needs to call up more scientists who are convinced that there is a God behind creation and that there is a reason for why we exist. Scientists are not the adversary. They are working out of a particular worldview. Scientists look at the order of things. Scientists whose worldview include a Creator look at the order of things and how it tells the glory of God. No matter how advanced science becomes it will not be able to answer the questions of why we are here and what is the point of living?

There is nothing in contemporary science that says God does not exist or if God does exist God cannot reveal God-self to us. Quantum Physics points to a relational aspect to the created order of things. It is a relationship that could only come through a conscious creation and not a random act. Before something is created it is formed in the mind. When you look at a piece of art work you ask, “Who created it?” When you look at a wonderful piece of furniture you don’t believe that it created itself. So, when looking at the inter-relatedness of creation and the order of creation how can we not say there was intelligence behind this work of art?

A lot of people who get hung up on a scientific worldview limit themselves to only what they can see. They are convinced that the natural order of things is all there is. Their view is restricted to the material world. Not all of reality involves space and material. If you want to know who I am you got to understand more than just my physical appearance. If you truly want to know a person then you need to know what they love, who they love, what their dreams are, and what their fears are. It is only when we begin to uncover a person’s consciousness that we can truly get to know a person. So, if we limit our knowing only to the physical world then we limit our ability to fully understand.

We live in a world obsessed with the natural/material world. We are all like Jacob and fallen asleep on the hard ground of reality in fear and loneliness. It was only until he let his dreams and imaginations take him to a place he had never been that he was able to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). If we will allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we live in a world created by God and this creator God has a plan and purpose for our lives, we will discover a world we never knew existed. Our definition of reality will expand beyond what can be seen with only our eyes.

There was a time when the king of Syria was at war with Israel, but every time he laid out his battle plans, Elisha, the Israelite prophet, would tell them to the king of Israel. The king of Syria was convinced that there was a spy among his rank. Everyone denied it. The king of Syria asked his aides to go get Elisha, the prophet. He was told that Elisha was in Dothan. “So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city” (2 Kings 6:14).

A servant of Elisha rose early in the morning and when he went out he was greeted by this large army of chariots. He shut the door in fear and asked Elisha, “What shall we do?” The prophet replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them” (6:16). Then he prayed and asked God to open the eyes of his servant, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see” (6:17). When the servant looked again he saw the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. Elisha was surrounded by the army of the Lord.

If you are having trouble seeing the reality that God exist today, pray for eyes to see. If you know someone who is struggling with the existence of God, pray that they have the eyes to see. I believe God will reveal God self to us if we are open to believe.