Hypocrisy and mourning

Hypocrisy and mourning

The Bible doesn’t say much about the Saturday between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke 23:56 says, “But (Jesus’ followers) rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

John and Mark don’t mention anything about Saturday, at all.

But, Matthew 27:62-66 says, The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.  ‘Sir,’ they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.  ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’  So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

Notice the difference?

On the Sabbath day, between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the followers of Jesus rested – as is the intent of the Sabbath – while the priests and Pharisees were hard at work, sealing the tomb of a dead man.

Work on the Sabbath, violates the Fourth Commandment.

Obviously, Jesus’ followers were exhausted, brokenhearted, mourning, and possibly afraid to be seen in public.  Their Sabbath, wasn’t a joyful one.  But, the contrast between the two groups is stark.  In spite of successfully defeating Jesus (or, so they thought), the priests and Pharisees were still “working” against him on the Sabbath.

“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'” (Isaiah 57:20-21)

Which makes me wonder.  When Jesus and the disciples observed the Passover, the night before the crucifixion, did the priests and Pharisees?  Or, were they too busy for the Passover, plotting, planning and preparing for Jesus’ arrest?  Even if they took the time to eat the Passover meal, were they paying attention to the story?  Or, did they gobble it down in haste, mumbling the prayers, and then on to carrying out their evil mission?

Not observing the Passover, violates one of Israel’s most holy days.

No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.

The literal definition of a hypocrite is someone who lives behind a mask.  They present an appearance that does not match the true intention.  Thus Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed” tombs – clean on the outside, but full of death.

The experts in the Law, broke the Law.  But, the ones considered law breakers, by following Jesus, were actually much closer to the heart and spirit of the Law, even in their grief.

Then, on Easter morning, when the tomb was miraculously opened, “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”  (Matthew 28:12-15)

Lies, and more lies.  Isn’t there a commandment about that, too?

But, in spite of their lying, and bribing, and scheming; in spite of their very best efforts to supress the Truth; in spite of having an innocent man put to death; even sacrificing their own Laws and customs as they did it; there was nothing the priests and Pharisees could do to thwart Jesus’ mission.

They killed him.  That was Jesus’ plan.

They violated the Passover.  Jesus was the Passover.

They lied.  Jesus is the Truth.

They tried to seal a dead body in a tomb.  The grave couldn’t hold him down.

They worked on the Sabbath.  So did God, defeating death and raising the son.

They thought they’d won.  The victory belongs to Jesus.

And, while all of this was happening – the Pharisees scurrying and Jesus’ followers mourning – Jesus lay in his grave.  Dead.  Wrapped in strips of linen, laid on a cold, hard slab of rock.  Hidden, in the dark, behind a large stone.  Even in his death, the Pharisees felt threatened.

Imagine – just imagine – if any of them knew what was about to happen.

 

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23:44-49)

Jesus died in the dark.  In the middle of day, when the sun was supposed to shine, from noon to three, a deep darkness shrouded the whole land.  The sun wouldn’t shine.

Just as, “In the beginning,” when the earth was a dark, formless, chaotic mass, before God said, “Let there be light,” as Jesus hung on the cross, the earth was plunged, once again, into chaotic darkness.  Which is strange, because Jesus came to be a light in the darkness.  At Christmas, we read…

  • The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
  • The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5)

Yet, that Friday, it seemed darkness had overcome the light, overwhelmed the light, snuffed out the light.  The light of the world – the innocent, sinless, Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world – was crucified by evil men.

They’d conspired.  They’d told lies.  They’d taken advantage of the weakness and greed of one of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.  And, now, the miracle worker and so called, “King of the Jews,” was defeated.  Darkness won, or so it appeared.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            We often, rightly, associate darkness with evil.  Evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness.  But the darkness on Good Friday was NOT the darkness of evil.  Though dark deeds were done, this darkness was something else.

What was this darkness?  This was the darkness of the Father’s grief, watching his beloved son suffer and die.  This was the darkness piercing the heart of God, as the Holy Trinity experienced the separation and death of the Son.  This was creation reacting to the evil done to its creator.  The sun, itself, refused to shine on this dark day.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            Lent, and especially Holy Week, is a darker season of the Christian year.  During Lent, reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and his sacrificial death for our sins.  Lent is for repentance, confession, self-denial, and self-examination.   Compared to Christmas and Easter, Lent is meant to be darker.

But, this particular Lent, here in Coral Springs and Parkland, has been much, much darker than usual.  Some have referred to the February 14 tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School as the “Valentine’s Day” tragedy.  It was also Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.  Some will always associate the Stoneman Douglas tragedy with future Valentine’s Days.  Not me.  I’ll always remember it on Ash Wednesdays.  For me, Ash Wednesdays will never be the same.

That Ash Wednesday night, as we gathered in the immediate aftermath, we marked our foreheads with ashes, in the form of a cross, as a reminder of our sin, mortality, and absolute dependence on God.  “From ashes you have come.  To ashes you will return.”  But, that night, as the dead were still lying where they’d fallen, as the injured were being treated, and many parents were still separated from their children, and as the names of some of the dead had not yet been announced, the cross-shaped ashes we wore also represented our terrible grief and lament.

For the families and friends of the seventeen who died, for the families and friends of the seventeen who were injured, and for our whole community, these forty days of Lent have been undeniably dark.  Darkness has covered the land, here, too.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            As Jesus hung on the cross, in the darkness, he was bearing on his shoulders the darkness of sin, and the brokenness and evil of the entire history of this world.  In some way, defying comprehension, Jesus’ death, even includes the darkness of our own recent and the dark and difficult days that have followed, here, for us.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God is with us when darkness crashes over us.

Martin Luther King preached, “We must also remember that God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces…  When the lamp of hope flickers and candle of faith runs low, he restoreth our souls, giving us renewed vigor to carry on.  He is with us not only in the noontime of fulfillment but also in the midnight of despair.”

And, in his final moments Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last. 

            At last, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, his ordeal was over.  The Son of God was dead.  For the moment, darkness defeated the light.

There is a phrase used at many funeral and memorial services, that says something like, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…” adopted from the final words on Jesus’ lips.  I didn’t attend the funerals of the seventeen who died, but I’m certain some version of that phrase was said – pastors, priests, and rabbis committing the souls of the innocent to our heavenly Father, just as Jesus offered his.

            “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Undeniably, Jesus’ ordeal was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long, sleepless night– full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; the abuse and mockery of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds shouting, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, nearly killing him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders already flayed by the soldier’s whip.  All before he was nailed to the cross.

When he came to Golgotha, long nails were driven through his hands and feet, affixing him to the cross.  And, then his cross was raised, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he suffered unspeakable agony, as life slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung on his cross, his disciples abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As darkness covered the land, he may have wondered if God abandoned him too.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to be at peace.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            As Jesus died, he was in control.  The casualty of terrible human cruelty, yet Jesus was no victim.  Dying in the darkness, yet nothing could extinguish his light.  Dying because he chose to give his life for us, sacrificially.  Satisfied, that he accomplished what he came to do.

John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            And, Jesus said these words in a “loud voice” – not an embarrassed whisper, or pathetic whimper, or mumbled in weakness.  He wasn’t a scared child, calling out in the dark.  In his strongest voice, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; spoken in strength and confidence in the one who would receive his Spirit.  Even as his physical strength faded, his faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, HE KNEW he could entrust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, into the faithful hands of his Heavenly Father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Most images of Jesus on the cross, depict him with head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the majority of the time Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold up his head.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him, as he hung in the darkness.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

In the darkness of Good Friday, his eyes were focused and clear.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            I wonder when the sun shined again.  Did the sun return that day, after Jesus was taken down from his cross, or did the darkness remain, as afternoon passed into the night?  Was it dark, when they laid Jesus in his tomb?  Did the sun rise with the dawn on Saturday morning, or did dark clouds linger that day too?  Whether the sun literally shined, or not, until the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, while Jesus lay dead in his grave, the world was dark a place.

But, Easter morning, the darkness lifted.

Dr. Martin Luther King also said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

For a dark moment in history, darkness appeared to win.  And, undeniably, for some, the darkness of this year’s Ash Wednesday will never pass, not in this life.  The darkness of grief will always be with them, in this life.  And, that is tragic.  This life, this world, as we know, can be filled with terrible darkness.

But, light has overcome the dark.  Death was confronted in the darkness, and was defeated.  We may endure too many dark Good Fridays, in this life.  But, the dawn of Easter is coming.

 

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Shock and Disbelief…

On Wednesday, as I was running errands, several emergency vehicles passed me at high speed, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, heading northwest to Parkland.  Shortly after, I stopped by my house, and could hear helicopters in the distance.  My next-door neighbor was standing in her yard, visible shaken – trembling, actually – and told me there was an active shooting happening at the High School. Texts started pouring in.  The news reported seventeen “injured.”  I sat for a few moments in utter shock and disbelief.  “This can’t be happening!  Again.  Here.”  I could still hear the helicopter’s blades, within walking distance from my home.

I flashed back to Columbine, way back in 1999, and the shock I felt then.  I’d never imagined anything like that could happen – at a school, of all places – or could ever happen again.  But by now, “Columbine” is synonymous with the many school tragedies that have happened since.

But, “Columbine” was 2000 miles away.  Virginian Tech, West Nickle Mines, Sandy Hook – tragedies, but so far away.  And, there’ve been countless others we’ve forgotten, on campuses and off.

Now, our own Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been added to the list.

Shock.  Disbelief.  Fear, anger, outrage, grief.

How could this happen?  How could this happen here?

 

Wishing for Lions…

            Revelation 5 paints a picture of God’s throne in heaven, high above the violence and chaos of this world.  God asks, “Who is worthy?” to open a scroll, foretelling events yet unknown.  When no one was found, Revelation 5:5 says, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

This, of course, is the risen Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who conquered death, dying on the cross, but rising from the dead.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humanity.  No one has ever conquered death. No one, except the Lion of Judah.

When tragedies, like this, occur, we turn to God.  I did on Wednesday.  I immediately prayed for the protection of everyone at that school.  I prayed for the first responders.  I prayed for the families who couldn’t get to their children.  I prayed that the reports of injuries were only injuries, not fatalities.  I prayed for the incident to end as quickly and as peaceably as possible.  I prayed God would prowl through the halls of Douglas High School like a triumphant, powerful, fearless lion, to save the day!

When tragedy strikes, I pray for God to move in power.  In the words of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!  How the mountains would quake in your presence!” Isaiah 64:1

            I want the God who sent plagues on Pharaoh.  I want the God who parted the Red Sea.  I want the God who defeated armies.  I want the Jesus who drove out demons.  I want the Jesus who calmed the storm.  I want the Jesus who raised the dead.  I want God to show up in power, defeating evil, saving the innocent.

Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.  The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry.  Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.  He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet… The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.  He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.  The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

That’s the God I wanted Wednesday.  A God who intervenes.  I wanted God to be like Superman, to swoop down and save the day.

But, when the day was over, seventeen were dead, fourteen injured, the assailant in custody, families traumatized, and a school, community, and nation in shock.

I’ve no doubt God was in the bravery of the students, faculty and staff, in the first responders, and in the comfort of family and friends.  I’ve no doubt God was present in the worship services and prayer vigils.  I’ve no doubt God has been present in acts generosity.  I’ve no doubt God is here, with us, now.

But, I suspect we’d give all of that up in exchange for God saving those seventeen lives.

 

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…

            According to the Bible, God has moved powerfully in history.  Yes, the Lion of Judah triumphed over death.  But, the following verse, in Revelation 5:6ff, says, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Lion of Judah appeared as a wounded, sacrificial lamb – not a lion.  The one who is worthy, is the one who was wounded – wounded for our transgressions; for our sinfulness; for our rebellion; for our disobedience; for our brokenness; for me; for you; for Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; wounded for the sins of the world.

Worthy is lamb who was slain.  Worthy is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

God’s greatest act in history – when death was defeated – looked in every way like weakness, tragedy and defeat.  No one at the cross saw a roaring lion.  And, yet, on the cross, true power and greatness were revealed.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “God’s distinctive greatness is revealed precisely in powerlessness… God consciously revealed himself in the powerlessness of Nazareth and Golgotha. Thus, it is not the one who can destroy the most who is the most powerful…but, on the contrary, the least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote, “In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.” 

            Isaiah 53:2-3 says, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  (Isaiah 53:2-3)

As we now know firsthand, we live in a world filled with senseless violence, tragedy, and death.  This isn’t the first, the only, or the last tragedy.  We know that.  But, this is OUR tragedy!  As people of faith, we may wonder where God is when tragedies occur.  Where was God last Wednesday?  If he doesn’t come in power to intervene, where is he?

The cross is God’s answer.  The wounded Lamb is God’s answer.

            Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:2-6

            “By his wounds we are healed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go to in order to restore broken community.” 
            One of my seminary professors, Richard Hayes, writes, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.”

God rarely shows up in force, at least as we see it.  God rarely comes like a roaring lion.  God comes as a wounded, sacrificed lamb.

`           Where was God last Wednesday?  God was with the pain.  God was with the suffering.  God was with those students, faculty, staff, and families huddled in fear.  God was with the dying.  God is with the injured.  God is with the grieving.  Wherever there is pain, suffering, fear, grief, God is there – holding us together, whispering words of comfort, promising that one day all will be made well.

One day all will be well – but, not yet.  Until then, he suffers with us in our sorrow and our pain.

 

Reconsidering the Cross

Though my thoughts and emotions are scattered, I keep returning to a single thought.  In light of this tragedy, and so many others like it, so many things seem so small and insignificant now.  The things I fret over daily, pale compared to what we’ve lost.

But, as so much seems smaller, and less important, the cross looms larger, and more important, than ever before!

How often do we talk about the cross as the place Jesus died to make me a better person?  How often do we talk about Jesus dying to save me from my bad habits?  How many times do we think of the cross as the antidote for our insecurities and low self-worth?  How many times do we treat the cross like a charm, as protection from bad luck?  How many times is the cross little more than a fashion accessory to our otherwise unspiritual, worldly lives.

Yes, Jesus cares about small things.  But, the cross is so much bigger.

When Jesus hung on the cross, by all appearances defeated and destroyed, he was dying for the sin of the entire world – yours, mine, everyone’s.  He sacrificed himself so that the most broken stuff of this world could be restored.  He was wounded to make us whole.  He was wounded so that days like February 14, 2018 will not define history.  On the cross, he carried the weight of every sin, of all pain and suffering, of every tragedy – including ours.  With the 17 victims, Jesus was wounded too – with them, for them.  He was wounded to make ALL things new.

He didn’t die to make things better.  He died to make them NEW!

We may want a lion, to intervene in moments like this.  God knows that.  But, God knows we need a wounded Lamb, to be with us suffering; to carry our suffering, to redeem our suffering, to ultimately save us from our suffering.  Wherever there is pain, darkness, and suffering, Jesus is there, bringing hope, restoration and redemption.  Hopefully that is a comforting thought.

But, I also hope we can hear the whisper of the wounded Savior calling to us, the Church, “If anyone wants to be by follower, if anyone wants to claim me as Lord and Savior, they must deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow me, to join me in the dark, and the suffering, and the pain, to make this world new again!”

While we would do anything to turn back the clock, to stop the evil, to bring back the dead, we can’t.  There is evil in this world, and terrible tragedies happen.  God doesn’t always stop them – that is undeniably true.  But, God has entered our darkest suffering, and is with us.

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain — to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

           

 

 

Coddling Evil

Coddling Evil

Yesterday, in a brief conversation with a colleague, reflecting on the recent tragedy in our community, she asked, “Why do we coddle evil?”  

She wasn’t only talking about the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  She was talking about the myriad evils in our world – in our own communities – that we are either blind to, or just consider insignificant.

She was also talking about personified evil – the spiritual forces of wickedness at work in our world; undermining good, turning people away from God and their neighbor, and seeking out opportunities to cause death and destruction.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

I wonder if it’s because we blame evil on people.  We see people.  We see what they do.

Surely, people do evil things.  Surely, people are complicit for their evil acts.  Surely, people are responsible – and must be held responsible – for their choices.  But, what about the evil that shapes and forms the people who do evil things?

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 6:12

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

I wonder if it’s easier to dismiss evil, blaming it on the bad choices of bad people?  We fear evil, of course.  But, we think we can avoid it by living in nice neighborhoods, sending our kids to “good” schools, avoiding certain parts of town, not associating with certain types of people, putting “bad” people in prison, protecting our borders, and certainly not participating in anything “too” bad ourselves.

Yes – evil exists in bad neighborhoods, bad schools, and in bad people.  Evil also exists in gated communities, private schools, and in “model” citizens.  Evil exists in our work places, in our government, on our TVs, and in our social media.  Evil, sometimes, exists in us.

Evil isn’t only a troubled young man with an assault-style weapon – though evil was clearly at work in him.  Evil is greed.  Evil is racism.  Evil is materialism.  Evil is sexism.  Evil is addiction, in all of it’s varieties.  Evil is lust.  Evil is judging others as inferior.  Evil is careless, thoughtless, hurtful words.  Evil is idolatry, in all of it’s myriad forms.  Evil is selfishness.  Evil is division.  Evil is power used abusively.  Evil is apathy.  Evil is hate.  Evil is injustice.  Evil is violence.  Evil is complacency.  Evil is pride.  Evil is worldliness.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

In moments like these, we inevitably ask questions about how to protect ourselves from future evil.  “Shouldn’t we have tougher gun laws?  Shouldn’t we have better mental health screenings?  Shouldn’t we have better security in our schools?”  Security and the protection of the innocent is undeniably prudent.  But, evil always finds a way in.  Evil always finds a chink in one’s armor.   Evil always finds a willing partner.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking, as people of faith are, “How do we name evil, resist evil, and do battle with evil, before evil wreaks such havoc and destruction?  How do we acknowledge and name the evil we complacently accept and minimize in our world, our communities, and even in our own homes?  How do we stop coddling evil, and start confronting evil?”

I’m not talking about Hollywood-style spiritual warfare and exorcisms – though there certainly may be times, people, and places that is needed.  I’m talking about donning the “armor of God” and confronting the forces of darkness in their tangible forms – racism, poverty, injustice, and the pervasive acceptance of myriad worldly values contrary to the will of God.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it!”

The Church of Jesus is not called to avoid evil, to accept evil, or to pander to evil.  The Church of Jesus is called to be a bright, piercing, billion-kilowatt light in the darkest darkness.  And, where the light shines brightest, the darkness flees.

Rob Bell writes, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

One of my favorite quotes is from a missionary named C.T. Studd…

“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”

Christian friends, “Why do we coddle evil?”

 

What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?

 

 

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

I recently led a memorial service for a 23-year-old man, whose family attends my church.  23-years-old is obviously too young to die, so his death was unexpected, a terrible shock, and particularly tragic.  After years of addiction, successful recovery, and then a recent relapse, he died of a drug overdose.  Tragic.

Exactly one year prior to the memorial service, I was moving in to my new home and job in Coral Springs.  As this young man was living in Boston, and I’ve only been at my current church for a year, I never had the opportunity to know him.  As a pastor, I find that leading memorial services on behalf of strangers is difficult – even more difficult than for those I personally know.  A memorial service is a very personal thing, and it’s impossible to speak personally, with any credibility, about a stranger.

So, instead of talking about the all-too-short life of this young man, I felt led to speak as a father of a 23-year old daughter and a 22-year-old son.  I spoke from the perspective of what I might need to hear from a pastor if the roles were reversed, and I was the grieving parent.

This is what I said…

Though I’ve never experienced this particular kind of grief – the loss of a child – I believe that the one common reality for all humans is that we will experience grief.  We will all experience loss.  We all hurt.  Scratch the surface of any human being, and you will find some degree of pain and suffering inside of us.  Everyone.  All of us.  No exceptions.

When I am in pain, when I doubt, when I’m uncertain, I’ve found comfort and strength in the honesty of Psalm 42…

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 
my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

I deeply appreciate the Psalmist’s honesty, vulnerability, rawness, and questioning.

The Psalmist compares himself to deer in the desert, desperately searching for a drink of water.  Often, in my opinion, this Psalm is incorrectly used as inspiration for prayer or worship, as though this is a gentle thirst.  This is no gentle thirst!  This animal is parched and may not survive. This is the desperate search of an animal clinging to life, in need of water where there’s not even a puddle.

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 Just as the deer pants desperately for water, the Psalmist is desperate for God – a God that feels far away.  Desperate for answers.  Desperate for comfort.  Desperate for a sense of God’s presence.  And, none can be found.

Day and night I have only tears for food.

 Throughout the Psalm, you can hear the anguish the Psalmist is enduring…

  My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?

Now I am deeply discouraged.

 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief?

Six times, the Psalmist asks “why?”  The most common question I’m asked following any tragedy is, “why?”  We desperately need to make sense of the pain or loss.  We desperately need to hear something to make it “ok.”  Nothing anyone could possibly say could make a tragedy “ok.”  And, yet, we ask.  We can’t help but ask.

Even for Christians, who believe in Heaven and eternity, death is still an enemy.  Even for those of who believe that Jesus defeated death on the cross, and rose from the dead, it is still an enemy that we must face before we can pass from this life to the next.  It is still an enemy that robs us of people we love, and long to be with. The enemy has been defeated.  Yet…

Death undeniably shakes our foundations.  Death pushes us to confront mysteries we can’t possibly comprehend. Death makes us ask questions about justice – “how can this be right?  How is this fair?”  Death makes us question the goodness of God.

“Whys?” are normal.  Inevitable.  Yet, there are no meaningful answers.

 Yet, peppered throughout this Psalm our words of faith…

 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

  But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

The key, I think, is that even when we doubt God’s goodness, God’s presence, or even God’s existence, direct those doubts to God. Don’t turn your back on him.  Direct all of your pain, emotion, and questions AT God – not away from him.  He can take your worst anger.  He understands.  He hurts with us too.  He gets angry too.  He grieves for tragic loss too.

Though I undeniably struggle sometimes; though there is so much I don’t understand and can’t explain; I believe 3 things with all of my heart and soul.

  1. There is a God.
  2. He is good.
  3. He is for us, and not against us.

 If we cling to those things, even when we go through the darkest valleys of this life, those simple truths will get you through.

 I think, if the roles were reversed, and I were the one in mourning, I would need to hear a pastor say…

 Everything you are thinking and feeling is ok – including anger and doubt toward God.  The pain, the terrible sadness, and the grief is NORMAL.  It doesn’t feel normal.  But, how could you expect to feel anything else in a moment like this?

 It’s ok not to be ok – any time soon.  You will be.  But, it will take time.

 It’s ok to yell, scream, cry, and even cuss if you need to – even if it’s toward God; even if it’s toward the one who has died.

 And, most importantly, God is with you.  He knows that, if you had the choice, you would choose to be with the one who has gone.  God gets that.  But, God is with you none-the-less.

 And, you can be sure, even now…

There is a God.

He is good.

He is for us, and not against us.