I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

Offended by Jesus…

Offended by Jesus…

Today, in most Christian traditions, is “Maundy Thursday.”  Many Christians will gather today, to remember the Lord’s “Last Supper” before his death, and to celebrate the Eucharist.

In my morning devotions, I was reminded of a very strange saying of Jesus, in the Gospel of John.  Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

Talking about eating Jesus’ body and drinking Jesus’ blood has lost its shock for most Christians.  Whether we’re Roman Catholics, who literally believe the bread and wine of communion becomes Jesus’ literal flesh and blood, or Baptists, who believe the communion elements are merely symbolic, or Methodists, who believe the point is the “spiritual/sacramental” presence of Christ in the entire ritual, we all use the language of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood.

But, those who heard those words first, were shocked, and some were offended.  Eat a man’s flesh?  Drink a man’s blood?  It was more than most could “stomach.”

“At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” (John 6:66)

Who can blame them?  I probably would have left too!

Though Jesus was clearly speaking metaphorically, there are numerous examples in the Gospel of John where Jesus meant something spiritually, but was understood literally.

Was Jesus talking about literal blindness, or spiritual blindness?

Was Jesus talking about physical water, from a well, or spiritual water?

Was Jesus talking about a second physical birth, or a spiritual rebirth?

Was Jesus actually offering his body as food, or as a sacrifice?

Those who heard him more literally – who were the majority – were apparently offended by the idea of eating flesh and blood, and turned away.  The only ones remaining, after the crowds dispersed in disgust, were the twelve.

Jesus asked them, “Are you also going to leave?” (John 6:67)

On behalf of the twelve, Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

I love that response!  Peter doesn’t say, “We’re staying!  We love eating flesh and drinking blood!  Great idea!  We’re all in!”  Instead, I think Peter was saying something like, We’re grossed-out too.  This is disgusting, and ‘hard to swallow.’ We don’t like the sound of eating flesh and drinking blood, either.  But, we know who you are.  Where else can we go?  We don’t have any other options!”

Thomas H. Green, S.J., observes, in his book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings, “Peter finds the demands of Jesus as difficult as any of those who walked with him no longer.  He stays with Jesus not because he has found his words reasonable, but because he has found God in him.”

Peter and the disciples could be just as thick-headed and literal as the masses.  They knew how “unreasonable” Jesus could be, better than anyone!  They didn’t find the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh any more appealing than the rest.  How relieved they must have been, at the Last Supper, when Jesus handed them bread and wine instead!

But, despite their ignorance, they knew who Jesus was (and is!) – “The Holy One of God.”

Let’s be honest, Jesus doesn’t make following him easy.  If we think otherwise, we really aren’t paying very close attention to his requirements…

  • Forgive, 70 x 7 times…
  • Give all you have to the poor…
  • Be glad when you are persecuted…
  • Cut off your hand, if it causes you to sin…
  • Love your enemy…
  • Wash each other’s feet…
  • Take up your cross, and follow me…
  • Be perfect…
  • Have faith…
  • Eat my flesh, drink my blood…

If we follow Jesus because it’s logical, or reasonable, or easy, we aren’t really following Jesus.  If we aren’t offended by Jesus, even as we follow him, then we might not be paying attention to what he has said.

But, if we turn away, like most do, where else shall we go to find eternal life?

“Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

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.

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Timshel: “You may…”

Timshel:  “You may…”

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden.  East of Eden wrestles with questions of human nature, and good and evil.  Are we born good or evil, or are good and evil choices?

These questions find an answer in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is outraged that God preferred his brother’s offering to his own.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God warns Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (NIV)

“You must rule over it.”

Other translations say it differently…

“Do thou rule over it.” (ASV)

“Thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

“You must subdue it and be its master.” (NLT)

“Do thou,” “Thou shalt,” and “You must” are translations of the Hebrew word “timshel.”  Here’s where the genius of East of Eden shines…

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.

Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”

“Thou mayest” or, simply, “You may.”

Timshel means we have a choice.  In every aspect of our lives, we have choices.  WE CHOOSE!

Will our choices serve ourselves or others?  Will our choices bless others or curse others?  What will the impact of our choices be on the world?  Are our choices God honoring, or not?  Regardless of how we answer these questions, our choices are our own.    And, the responsibility for my choices lies on me.

Timshel is both a gift and a responsibility.  I get to choose how I will use my day, who I will spend my day with, what I will accomplish, or not.  I choose.  But, I am also responsible for those choices.  Were they godly choices?  Were they wise?  Were they loving?

“Think of the glory of the choice.”

What will you choose today?

Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with God.  When the morning came, God said, “You will no longer go by the name Jacob. From now on, your name will be Israel because you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

Of course, Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel, from whom the nation received its name.  The name, Israel, means “wrestles with God.”

Besides the literal event in Genesis 32, isn’t it interesting God named his chosen people, “You will wrestle with me.”  And, Israel did.  God’s people have always wrestled with God.  We still do.

I’ve always enjoyed that little tid-bit.  As a son of the “New Israel,” I’ve appreciated God welcoming our wrestling, rather than squashing us like bugs when we challenge him.  In fact, God seems to initiate the wrestling, as life, and our ability to navigate it, is never easy.

I’ve relished digging at some deep theological question, some perplexing ethical dilemma, or some difficult passage of Scripture.  Even when I’m left dazed and confused, I’ve found the wrestling stimulating, and even enjoyable.

But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

A month after the terrible tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I continue to wrestle with questions I’ve never truly wrestled with before.  Even though terrible tragedies happen all of the time, and always have, this one has literally hit much closer to home.  Even though I’ve had neat theological answers in the past, they haven’t been working so easily for me lately.  I haven’t even been directly affected by this tragedy.  Yet, being a pastor in this community, at this moment, I feel an urgency to know what to say.

I don’t.  I’m wrestling.

Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?

If we believe God intervenes in the affairs of this world sometimes, why not this time?

Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?

Is it sufficient to say, “God suffers with us?”

Is it sufficient to say, “Someday, all suffering will end?”

I’m torn between knowing that the answers to such questions exist in the realm of mystery, and needing to know the answers to my questions NOW.  I’m torn between the reasonable theological answers I’ve been taught, and the lack of meaning they have for me at this particular moment.

I’m wrestling.  But, right now, I’m tired of wrestling.

Maybe that’s the point.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we’re worn out.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we can’t wrestle anymore.

Maybe we’re meant to wrestle until we find some kind of peace with the One we are wrestling with.

Maybe…

Until then, as tired as I am, I’ll keep on wrestling, whether I find my answers or not.