(This reflection is drawn from Jeremiah 2-:7-13)
When Jeremiah was called to speak to the devastated people of Israel, he had “something like a burning fire shut up in [his] bones.” He had a prophecy too explosive to tamp down and a God who prevailed alongside him against his fear. But when his warnings of judgement landed him in chains, Jeremiah’s faith was tested and he responded with lament. Jeremiah even speaks of God overpowering him, as if his opponent is the Lord! Once Jeremiah expresses his grief and anger over what has happened to his country, he is freed from its grip upon his soul and is able to remember that God is warrior at his side who will not allow the enemy to prevail!
I believe the Church in America has lost the ability to lament. Property gospel vendors quip, “count it all joy,” as if our troubles are mere illusions. Just “name it and claim it” and the blessings will roll in as if lament is an evidence of failure and sinful shame. Scripture contains many voices of people crying out to God in their despair and anger with God; and there is much to lament in our world. Theological factions wage “culture wars” against one another defying God’s call for unity. I join Jeremiah as he painfully writes, “I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
I, too, am weary of gun violence in our schools, our houses of worship, our night clubs, our concerts, in our streets and homes. I want to cry out, “Why, O God, is it deemed acceptable for people to own fully automatic assault rifles?” I am saddened by the “lock-down drills” my children have to practice over and over. I want to angrily denounce our political leaders who allow very little restrictions around gun ownership or universal background checks. I am weary of the country we are becoming: a land where violence toward our children is an acceptable cost of protecting a “right.” How did we get here? How can we enact common sense gun laws that the majority of Americans and gun owners already agree with?
In the life of faith, we are given permission to lament, crying out at injustice, to scream “Why God!” God is big enough for our questions and our laments. God knows of our pressing need to get it out and yet many of us are afraid. We fear that we have somehow failed in being faithful. But we have not. We are being honest. And God wants an open and honest relationship with you more than anything! It is in this act of honest surrendering to God that we discover new hopes, God’s enduring presence, heartfelt praise and meaningful prayer. Did you know that there are over 40 Psalms crying out to God and all but one turn to hope (Psalm 88). God turns our sorrow into redemptive possibilities!
In the midst of so much struggle and sadness in the world, the Church has an opportunity to speak biblically and faithfully without ignoring reality, and we must start within. I must start within. If we fail (if I fail) to do this, the world will not see the hope that the gospel can bring to such a time as this. Indeed, this “time” is dark. Yet, despite the darkness of gun violence in our nation, we can and we must raise our prophetic voices and our actions to bring about reforms to our gun laws now. Is it possible? Indeed, it is: “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” (Lamentations 3:24)
Jesus called the religious authorities "slaves to sin." In John 8:35, Jesus explains this by saying, "The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever." God is offering us "home" - a place where we can be secure, safe, dream big dreams, and be who we are made to be: God's children! What is interesting to me is in discovering what comes before sin. It is insecurity. The common experience of the "slave" is insecurity, not having a sense of belonging, or a place in the world. Feeling left out, being discarded, not good enough lay the ground work for a life of desperation and "missing the mark" of God's intention for your life.
Why else did Adam and Eve sin in the garden as told in the second creation account in Genesis? Everything was good and they had everything they needed. But, the serpent told them that God was holding them back, preventing them from being equal with God. Suddenly, their sense of safety and security evaporated. This account speaks of not only how sin happened but how it happens everyday. Jesus is offering freedom from this slavery of insecurity and hopelessness. A home.
I recently took my kids to see the movie, "The Greatest Showman." It is such a beautiful musical about the life of legendary P.T. Barnum (played powerfully by Hugh Jackman). It speaks movingly of this dreamer who came from nothing and created a community of the outcast, deformed, and odd people who were living in the shadows of society in his new circus of "curiosities." He wasn't perfect, chasing "respectability" and ever increasing applause from the crowds, he failed his "community" for a time. What made me teary as I watched was the profound reminder of what the church is supposed to be was right in front of me. Creating a beloved community, a secure space for people to be the children of God, running counter to the grain of culture's shallow and oppressive norms. We may not be the "Greatest Show on Earth", but we, are called to a life of showing the love of God to the world!
Check out this video - this is church y'all! "And we will come back home, and we will come back home, home again!"
The sermon this week is where Jesus performs his 3rd “sign” in the gospel of John and first major controversy with Mosaic law by healing a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. The man is healed and told to “stand up, take your mat, and walk.” Then the man is questioned by the religious authorities about his “work” on the Sabbath of carrying his mat. Everyone knew that this man had been paralyzed, but their work is one of enforcement of Sabbath law and he is condemned by them. The man seeks to avoid blame by essentially saying that he was just doing what he was told. Earlier he laid the responsibility of not being healed on others. Now he lays blame on his healer for breaking the Sabbath. The healed man failed to thank his benefactor or even catch his name! When Jesus encounters the man again, he warns him not to sin again. The man has not actively shown malice toward Jesus, but it appears that his passive attitude of exporting blame is seen by Jesus as irresponsible.
After this encounter, the man takes his own initiative to identify Jesus as the one “responsible” of his violation of Sabbath law. At best this is a thoughtless act of compliance with the powers that be. At worst, it is collusion with Jesus’ enemies. Regardless, it is a disrespectful reaction to Jesus’ gracious gift.
All of this must have been disheartening for Jesus. But perhaps most difficult to take was their insistence on a false understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift to humanity, not a further obligation of hardship. Then Jesus really sets them off by saying: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” (John 5:17) Jesus is saying that he and God are one and like the gracious gift given to the paralyzed man who poorly mannered in the face of the gift he has been given, the religious authorities are also missing the greater point of Sabbath rest by focusing on details of observance.
It brings to my mind Matthew 12:30, where Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus is doing the work of gathering his people together, but the authorities are using this gracious gift of the Sabbath as a means of scattering the people into further division and shame. God is still working on the Sabbath to gather us into his arms of love and fellowship every day because God does not need a break, but knows that we need a break from the values of Pharaoh as seen today in the nonstop production and consumerism. Let us accept this gracious gift with our whole hearts and thank God that God is still working!
As I struggle to wrap my mind around the horrendous events of Charlottesville this week and the President’s remarkable failure to clearly denounce white supremacy, I am listening to the song – We Are One Tonight by Switchfoot, which has special place in my heart.
Back in 2006, as Doris and I were driving through “The City” to visit her grandparents in Chinatown, we were talking about the very real possibility of our first child coming into this world. As we drove, slowly through the seemingly maddening and chaotic streets, this song played in our CD player and we were transported to another reality! We were One with the world! The Lincoln Tunnel was a giant red carpet ushering us into a glorious palace city, where streets were not obstacles to be avoided or get through as quickly as possible, but to intentionally linger in. Are those car horns joyful trumpet blasts from the beloved community of God? The skyscrapers seemingly reaching up to heaven in praise! The throng of diverse peoples surrounding us was seen as they really were, someone’s beloved child. Love growing in real time, block by block, in unimaginable and powerful ways not containable by my heart for my new found human family. A glimpse of God’s vision for humanity: the possibility of the Kingdom of God among us, The City of God: the fruition of God’s dream for creation since way back at the garden. We were One that night and our “little one” came early the next year. Thanks be to God!
So, as the whole world seems to be going upside down, don’t lose heart. Please remember that God still “dreaming out loud!” God still desires to show us a new world: God’s City where love and hope reign and we can be One Tonight. So no matter your racial, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic designation, you have invaluable worth, value, and dignity. Never doubt that Kingdom reality of who you are in the eyes of God. My prayer is that the church might have those eyes as well. “Though the world is flawed – These scars will heal.” One Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit, created One Human Family. Can we be One Tonight? The scripture tells us, Yes We Can:
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no person could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10
Take a moment and hear a song that long ago transported me into a glimpse of God's love. That love remains, "let's scream it out loud!"
We Are One Tonight music video:
This summer we had to cut seven trees: prominent, distinctive, shade makers. This was received with sadness by some in the church, but we knew that it was what had to be done because they had become a danger. Several were dead and the others diseased. One of the trees produced only dry dust as the workers ground it up, yes, it was dead.
Although this has certainly transformed the landscape of our campus, it reminds me of where many churches find themselves facing in the 21st century. The “beautiful trees” of Christendom are diseased and dying. In order to have relevant, authentic relationships where even enemies are loved; the structures of “church as it has been” that do not enhance these values of Christ must be cut down. After all, they're dangerous!
The first Sunday after the huge Cider Birch just to the east of the sanctuary came down; the amount of light that came into the sanctuary was amazing! The challenge and opportunity for the churches today is create spaces that “let the light in.” People are looking for a safe space where they can discover who God has made them to be. For far too long, the institutional church has been throwing shade on people’s lives instead of letting the light in. This is a reminder that it's okay to miss the trees, but God's call to us is to be enablers of light.
"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16
Father Greg Boyle is simply an amazing man. He is a Jesuit priest whose ministry is in the trenches of gang life in Los Angeles. He, affectionately known as “Father G”, started Homeboy Industries in 1988, by asking one question: “Can we improve the health and safety of our community through jobs and education rather than through suppression and incarceration?” The answer was yes.
In Father G’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, he makes you cry and laugh out loud with his powerful stories. One I love was when he was trying to get to a speaking engagement across town. Often he will take “homies” who are in the program to tell their stories when he travels around. So he tells of one such event where he grabbed a couple of guys to accompany him. Driving down the road, before getting on the infamous LA highway system, he notices that the car is on “E”. He says with exasperation that he’s going to need to get some gas. The young man sitting shot gun leans over to look at his gauge and says, “Oh, you’re okay, Padre.”
In disbelief, Father G says, “Huh? E means empty!” Then his young friend stares at him in utter disbelief and says, “What? I always thought it meant ‘Enough!’” While Father G loses it in laughter and beckons his young friend back to the world we all reside in, he asks the obvious next question: “If E means “enough’, what did you think “F” could possibly stood for?” Suddenly bashful, the young man eventually, meekly shared, “Finished?”
Isn’t that a hilarious reminder to Christians of how strange we truly are? Following Jesus turns our expectations upside down, nearly every time. When the lawyer wanted to justify himself as righteous - he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” You see, he wanted to know who was outside the covenant and therefore not worthy of his “religiousness”. He was looking at E and expected “Empty” but Jesus gave him an “Enough” by defining neighbor, not by who they are, but by how we act toward them. What we all thought was an impersonal noun becomes a beautiful verb!
“Who is my neighbor?” – a question that echoes throughout history is answered, once and for all, by Jesus that, in fact, everyone is! Even the hated Samaritans as Jesus answers the lawyers question with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The question then transforms from “who is my neighbor”, to “What is my obligation to them?” Jesus’ answer is to love, love without conditions no matter who the other is for they are God’s child too.
When the world says you have “FULLfilled” your obligations and pats you on the back, Jesus says that without me - you’re “finished”! Instead, “Empty” yourself and find “enough” in Christ.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8
YouTube celebrity and vlogger, Casey Neistat’s recent Samsung commercial (check it out below) during the Oscars grabbed me with his intro line “Let me introduce … the rest of us”. Armed with phones and social media accounts, people are telling their stories. Being creative, “… not because we have to. We create because we love to.” That, right there, is the divine impulse of creation: love.
God creates because God loves. Period. But that is only the beginning of the story. God’s creative love sparks possibilities of redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and grace that surpass any of our understandings. God has used less that “our phones, duct tape, parking lots, and guts” to share a love story too big for any production company to convey. When the religious elite and the Roman soldiers said that Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God – he revealed God’s greatest act of love - “Watch Me”. As we prepare for the season of Lent, let us keep our eyes on Christ and watch a love story unfold for all of us. Can we do this, model this, become this? No, not by ourselves we can’t. Experiencing the love of Christ means that you can “Do What You Can’t.”
Henry David Thoreau famously observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Do we see this at some level every day? Do we feel it from time to time? Desperately seeking fulfillment, yet quietly going about one’s daily life. Keeping your head down, not rocking the boat, or making a fuss. It is a code of silence that has always plagued human hearts.
Advent reminds us that we have a powerful peace in knowing Emmanuel, God is with us! Advent steers us toward our solemn responsibility to break this code of silence and any other codes that signal it is still "business as usual." No, God is doing a new thing in our midst, and we need to live that out in “Loud Exclamation!” Calling people’s attention to the mission of Christ - bringing eternal peace to his creation. Do you know this peace? Do you know only moments of quiet desperation? This Christ child, born into this world in the humble and desperate circumstance of an animal barn hears your quiet plea. He knows you and loves you and wants you to desire his ways for your life because they lead to the abundant life. That starts with the peace of the shared relationship with God.
Thoreau also wrote, “… if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Imagine how much greater your “success” could be if we adapted this wisdom to include God – advancing in the direction of God’s dreams, living the life which God imagines for us, what might unexpected “success” might we find there? My prayer for you is that you might have a confident peace giving you the courage to live … truly live a life of loud exclamation!
“Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God!’”
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)