Friday, September 27, 2013

Confessions of a Perfectionist


            Hello, my name is Tim and I am a recovering perfectionist.  There was a time in my life when perfectionism ruled all areas of my life.  The need for consistent daily routines with no ability to deal with anything outside that terrain of the familiar caused me to have the illusion that I was in control, competent, and, well, perfect.  To fail at anything meant I was a worthless person, which made me unacceptable to myself and fed a constant stream of beating myself up emotionally for my imperfections.

            A wise professor once said to me:  “Tim, can you be a good enough pastor?”  He was asking me if I could be responsible and do what needed to be done without being an obsessive-compulsive mess about it.  He was pointing out to me that to do my best was good enough, period.  That was solid stuff for me.  The pastoral vocation is one in which, even doing something to the height of perfection, may lead a parishioner to complain about what you did wrong or fault you for some perceived deficiency.  If a church leader is not secure in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, it is a prescription for burn-out, strained relationships with family, and depression.  Perfectionism is not something to embrace as a virtue; it is the sin of working for approval and acceptance, instead of relying in the identity of being hidden in Christ.

            The pathology of my perfectionism was a bent toward all-or-nothing thinking – having complete control or no control at all.  If I could not do something perfect, I did not do it at all.  I have since been learning to live in the in-between world of little-by-little, day-by-day change, where most of life is actually lived.  Most of our daily existence is lived in the mundane, in the constant rhythm of a three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward kind of life.  It is simply unrealistic to think that the Christian life can be some sort of unending progressive path of perfection.  It would be like a baseball player thinking he should be able to bat 1.000 without ever striking out.

            Becoming holy along the road of spiritual sanctification means we will, little by little, day by day, one step at a time, have our sinful desires exposed, our wrong thinking and feeling patterns revealed, our self-protective styles of relating, our avoidance of conflict and pain, all seen for what they are.  Without seeing our sin for what it is, we will never see God’s grace for what it is.  To slowly and deliberately learn to live in the faith and grace of Jesus is our greatest task, and our highest joy.  Living in this space of grace is what helps us to recognize the whispers of Satan:  “You’ll never be good enough,” and “You should never make mistakes.”  The devil is into trying to make us feel ashamed for whom we are; God is trying to help us confess our idolatry and turn to Jesus.

            Can you think the thought that God delights over you?  Can you believe that you have been created in God’s image and likeness, and are, therefore, precious to him apart from what you do or don’t do?  Can you accept that you are loved by God?  Can you live with yourself?  Grace is the key that unlocks the door of salvation.  Use it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Necessity of Community

What stands out to me about the very earliest believers in Jesus was their amazing transformation (Acts 2:38-47).  Only 53 days earlier these same people had applauded the murder of the Son of God.  But they realized their terrible error, changed their mind, and turned from their sin and embraced the grace of God in Christ.  They became a group of Christians committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come right in front of their faces.

            They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship.  This is a picture of a group of Christian disciples who were hungry for instruction.  They were so hungry for teaching and fellowship that they met every day.  They met in the temple (large group), and in homes (small groups).  Both large group meetings and small group gatherings are necessary for healthy spiritual growth and development.  In other words, this is no superficial once-in-a-while get together; this is a deep devotion and commitment to learning Scripture together, and sharing life together in fellowship.

            A simple observation of the text of Acts chapter 2 is that all the pronouns are plural; those pronouns include everyone – not just a select few.  This is why throughout the New Testament the images used to describe the church emphasize its communal nature.  Church as the Body of Christ, the temple of God (building), and as the army of the Lord are all images that require the community of the redeemed working and worshiping and reaching out together in order to glorify God.  True Christian discipleship does not happen apart from life together.

            Therefore, we need to be aware of church images that emphasize only the individual and not the community.  For example, seeing the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you're running low ignores the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas.  For other people, the church may be more like a movie theatre, a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you went in.  Or maybe some might view the church as a kind of drug store – a place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain.  Yet others might opt for seeing the church as a big box retailer – a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church should offer great service and programs at a low price.

            Certainly, the church ought to serve and meet individual needs.  The problem arises when we only function as autonomous persons who don’t really need others in order to live the Christian life.  The early church was committed to learning the Word of God together; they committed themselves to fellowship, to practicing hospitality with each other and praying with each other every day.

            The results of those two primary communal commitments of learning and fellowshipping on a daily basis was that:  everyone was filled with awe (the fear of the Lord); everyone saw and experienced signs and wonders (miracles); everyone had everything in common (they met one another’s needs – the fact that they sold things implies personal property, not communism); everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life (“sincere hearts” means they lived simply, and were not encumbered with a lot of stuff and their schedules and calendars overflowing); everyone praised God; everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them; and, the result of all this behavior was that people were being saved left and right from their sinful, empty ways of life apart from God.

            If any of us today want to have that kind of community dynamic then we must be willing to devote ourselves to biblical teaching and Christian fellowship every day!  No church can become or remain healthy apart from Christian community; it requires doggedly embracing the commitments of learning Scripture, and eating and praying together through being yoked in fellowship.  Being part of a small group that meets once a week, for the purpose of learning more about the Bible and developing community is not really optional equipment for the follower of Jesus.  It is a small thing when you put it in the perspective of the early church meeting every day

            That early community had such a curiously learning and deeply loving dynamic that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride.  It was a community where the uneducated felt free to drink in knowing more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

            In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares a story she once heard from her minister that illustrates the necessary presence of others in our journey of faith:  “When my pastor was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn't find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’”  Lamott further writes:  “And that is why I have stayed so close to my church—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.”

            The church, the Body of Christ, needs you.  The community of the redeemed needs your gifts and abilities, your presence and wisdom.  Disciples are made, formed, and forged in the context of community.  The sharing of your experiences and insights, as well as your hands and feet, are necessary for being spiritually developed in Christ.  Confidence is only gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what is needed.  May the results of that early congregation be our collective experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Theology That Makes a Difference

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Every Sunday I have the privilege of proclaiming this wonderful benediction at the end of the worship service.  As believers in Jesus Christ, we do not serve a generic God, but acknowledge that all three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, exist together eternally.  This is important because our identity as Christians is wrapped up in God as the Trinity.  Our worship, our life together, and our mission are based in the understanding of the triune God.

In the Apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthian church, his focus was on addressing the continuing problem of special interest groups creating divisions and factions within the church.  He wanted the congregation to know that such behavior is inconsistent with who God is.  Paul zeroed in on the fact that God in Christ has brought reconciliation not only between God and people, but between one another in the church.  So, Paul’s point in ending his epistle with this benediction was to promote reconciliation and unity within the church.  Grace, love, and fellowship are available to God’s people.  Just as there is unity and harmony within God himself, there is to be unity and harmony in the church.  Unity will be a practical reality only when the church receives grace, love, and fellowship and then chooses to give it to one another.

Our triune God wants us to not just know what these blessings are, but to experience them.  A Trinitarian understanding of God is not simply a doctrine to believe, but a powerful reality to be lived!  The virtues of grace, love, and fellowship are blessings to be received and blessings that are to be liberally thrown back out to people.  In this way God is glorified through his people.

God has created us in his image.  That image is the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The way our triune God relates within himself in perfect love and fellowship is to be reflected in our own human relationships with one another.

Here are some implications of the Trinity for our relationships in the church and the world:
  1. We will regard everyone in the church as an equal.  People are people, period.  When we start referring to them other than that name of “person” we distance ourselves from them, i.e. “someone should do something” is the ultimate act of misnaming and removal from being active in people’s lives.
  2. We will have concern for other churches besides our own local church or ministry.  We will share our resources and help each other accomplish the mission of God.  Grace, love, and fellowship ought to happen between churches and ministries who share the common theological doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. We will treat each family member as important, i.e. avoiding terms like “black sheep” or being so upset that one doesn’t talk for years with a family member.  The same goes for the family of God.  God in Christ has reconciled us with the Spirit, helping us to make it a reality in our human relationships so that we really have no excuse to hold a grudge.
  4. We will treat all human beings with respect, dignity, and value, rather than with suspicion or for what they can do for us.

The unselfish love of the members of the Trinity spills over into love for God’s creatures, and, so, this received love ought to overflow into the lives of others.  This is precisely how God is glorified.  This is to be what we celebrate, and what we practice.  This is theology that makes a difference.  Soli Deo Gloria!  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Worship Jesus

We are to have, in the words of Pastor Eugene Peterson, a “long obedience in the same direction.”  We are to follow Jesus, counting the cost of being his disciple – having all of life infused with the love of God and the desire to follow him.  This is why worship is important, and worship must center in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We are to be long on the worship of Jesus.

            As believers in Jesus, we are “living stones” being built to form the temple of the Lord.  In our worship we are all like priests, carrying the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving into the presence of God.  As God’s holy people, we have been set apart and hewn into shape for the purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ.  Instead of offering the blood of bulls and goats, like the select group of the Old Testament priests did, Christians are all priests who now offer spiritual sacrifices because Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.  We are to continually offer to God our worship of Christ, a holy life in grateful response to Jesus’ death on our behalf (1 Peter 2:4-10).

            Jesus Christ is our cornerstone, our center.  In our priority of worship, we are to allow God to build us into a community of faith that worships Jesus with lives dedicated to knowing him and making him known.  It really is all about Jesus.  An ancient prayer says:  Less of me, more of Jesus.

            Since the worship of Jesus is of such importance, let me offer a definition of worship so that we are all on the same page:  Worship is the expression of a relationship in which God the Father reveals himself and his love in Christ, and by his Holy Spirit gives grace, to which we respond in faith, gratitude, and obedience.  All of life, not just a Sunday worship service, is to be a daily rhythm of God’s revelation to us, and our response to God in faith, thanksgiving, and an obedient life.

            We exist for worship, and Christian worship is grounded in the triune God and centered in Christ.  Worship is the heart and life response to the revelation of God in Christ.  Therefore, genuine encounters and experiences of God’s revelation to us and our response to that gracious revealing cannot help but form us into the disciples of Jesus that God wants us to be.

            Stuart Briscoe, author and long-time pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin told the following story:  “Many years ago, during the Cold War, I traveled to Poland for several weeks of itinerant ministry. One winter day my sponsors drove me in the dead of night to the middle of nowhere. I walked into a dilapidated building crammed with one hundred young people. I realized it was a unique opportunity.  Through an interpreter I preached on maintaining Christ as the center of our lives as Christians. Ten minutes into my message, the lights went out. Pitch black.  My interpreter urged me to keep talking. Unable to see my notes or read my Bible, I continued. After I had preached in the dark for twenty minutes, the lights suddenly blinked on, and what I saw startled me: everyone was on their knees, and they remained there for the rest of my message.  The next day I commented on this to one man, and he said, ‘After you left, we stayed on our knees most of the night. We wanted to make sure we were remaining in Christ and centering our lives in him."

            God is real, and he is really present with us.  God is not just some third party listening in to our prayers and our meetings.  Worship is an occasion for us to experience God’s presence and power, and to be formed into the followers of Jesus he wants us to be. 

            Since Jesus is the center of our worship, that means that worship does not center in a style or an outcome.  We too often evaluate a worship service on whether or not it “worked” or if it emotionally “moved” the congregation through a particular musical or liturgical style.  When worship is designed for congregational taste and preference, Jesus Christ, as the center of worship, may easily be lost.  Worship that is pleasing to God has Christ as the center and object of its faith and response.  That means that worship that is pleasing to God can be offered in many different styles.  Worship itself is to be evaluated not by the satisfaction of personal preference but by its acceptance by God as pleasing and honoring to him.  And what is pleasing and honoring to God is worship that has Jesus as the cornerstone of our faith.  If Jesus ever gets pushed to the margins of worship, it doesn’t matter what style we worship in because then it ceases to be Christian worship.

            Since Jesus is the center of our worship, a particular worship gathering of people changes from more than just an obligation to a meeting with God himself.  Worship then becomes less about gaining truth, and more about letting Jesus as the truth gain us.  The more we pay attention to the presence of Jesus Christ through the songs, prayers, preaching, and Scripture, the more we will experience the centrality and power of God.  And when we experience Jesus, we cannot help but capture his heart and passion for the world.  Jesus becomes very precious to us when we align ourselves to him as the cornerstone of our faith and worship.

            Romans 12:1 says:  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.  We center our lives on Jesus not just on Sunday morning, but daily.  Pleasing worship is not confined to a particular person or priest performing worship, but is the responsibility and the privilege of every believer.  We are embodied beings; we speak through vocal chords; we move with our legs; we act with our arms; we cannot communicate nor do the will of God apart from our bodies. 

            Jesus, as the center of our worship, means that acceptable worship is not just for the sanctuary; it is for daily living and communicating.  It is in the home, the neighborhood, and the marketplace that discipleship will prove itself.  It is in the quality of everyday relationships that God finds worship that is set apart and pleasing to him.

            A few questions, it seems to me, need to be asked:  1) Is Jesus the center of your life (not just part of it, but the chief cornerstone)?  2) How do you, or will you, live a life of worship with Jesus as the cornerstone of your life?  3) Do you know of what value Jesus really is?

            Jesus is much too precious of a cornerstone to be left in a church building.  Let God drill deep into your life and show you the infinite value of Jesus Christ.  Explore him.  Worship him.  Worship him through offering your very life to him.  Shape your life around him.  Center yourself completely in Jesus and discover just how precious he is.  Let your love be long on Jesus Christ.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Choosing Capable Leaders

Maybe it should go without saying that Jesus himself is to form everything we do in the church. Nevertheless, it needs to be said because one bad apple in a church leadership position can spoil the whole bushel of leaders.  This is why character formation is at the core of being a church leader – because the elder’s ministry of oversight, shepherding, and discernment of God’s will comes from the inner resources of knowing Christ; and a deacon’s ministry of outreach and service comes from a close walk of faith with Jesus.  In a very real sense, elders and deacons are to manifest or reveal Jesus to the congregation.  It is a high calling.  In the New Testament text, 1 Timothy 3, Paul gave to the Church seven requirements of Christian morality and seven requirements of a daily walk for leaders.  These fourteen requirements are the basis for those who serve the church so that the responsibility of the church’s mission might be kept on track of bringing people to Jesus.  These requirements for leaders arise first and foremost from their experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ.

            The first set of seven has to do with morality.  A church leader is to 1) have a good reputation; 2) be completely faithful and devoted in the marriage relationship (by the way, this doesn’t mean that a church leader must be married, because then even Jesus wouldn’t qualify as a church leader); 3) be clear-minded or even-keeled (consistent); 4) self-controlled (not trying to control others); 5) possessing moral courage, that is, specifically to speak truth with grace and not take the coward’s way of complaining; 6) a friend of strangers (hospitality quite literally means love of the stranger); and, 7) able to impart instruction to others, or, in other words, able to communicate truth in such a way that helps people and builds them up and does not tear them down in the Christian life.  These seven requirements are possible because the leader has witnessed Jesus personally working in his or her life.

            The second set of seven has to do with the conduct of the person in everyday life.  A church leader is to:  1) not be a drunk; 2) not given to being angry and constantly carrying a chip on his shoulder about something he doesn’t like (respectable); 3) gentle; 4) not always picking a fight about something; 5) not thinking about the all-mighty dollar in every decision; 6) having a caring approach to family that results in loving relationships with kids, because after all, rules without relationship will lead to rebellion not only in the family but in the church, as well; and 7) the leader must not be a beginner in the faith, but have some proven maturity in order to handle the job well so that those on the outside of the church may see that there is something wonderfully different about the way things are handled and done among those who profess Jesus Christ.

            In addition to this, we have seven related requirements for deacons:  1) dignified in every kind of relation (worthy of respect); 2) not double-tongued, saying one thing to one person and something different to another (sincere); 3) practicing moderation when it comes to drinking; 4) not greedy; 5) keeping very close to faith in Christ with a pure heart; 6) able to handle the eyes of everybody in the church on them when they serve without falling apart; and 7) also holding to the vows of marriage faithfully and nurturing kids well.

            God calls and sets apart individuals for his service so that he might reveal and manifest his presence among his people.  Jesus Christ wants his church to be built up through faithful service.  A few final observations:  notice that nowhere in this passage or in the New Testament is there found that it is the main requirement of a church leader to listen to complaints and whining.  The ancient Israelites took quite a beating from God for being a community of grumblers.  Philippians 2:14 flatly says Do everything without complaining or arguing.  Neither will you find that the church operates just like an American form of democracy.  Instead of church leaders being representatives of the people to do their will, church leaders are rather representatives of God to the people so that God’s will is done in all things.  So, then, prayer is a major work for elders; and, outreach a major work of deacons because this work is primarily the work of God and only secondarily the work of people.

            So, in selecting church leaders, churches have a biblical imperative to not just arm-twist anyone who will respond, but choose men and women of God whom are people of high integrity, on the path of spiritual maturity and pursuing Jesus Christ.  May God be glorified, Jesus followed, and the Spirit unleashed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Following Jesus


           When he was on this earth, Jesus made it clear to the large crowds of people following him that a life of being a disciple is to be of highest importance to us – it is why the church exists.  People are to discover what this kind of life entails, and are to come to a decision to follow Jesus in every area of life with everything they have.

            Discipleship, following Jesus, requires radical obedience.  Love of family must not stand in the way.  Jesus said we are to ‘hate’ family and even self (Luke 14:25-27).  In Western culture we typically use the terms ‘hate’ and ‘love’ as descriptions of our emotions or feelings.  But in the Bible, love and hate are primarily terms of allegiance or priority.  In other words Jesus was saying that our primary loyalty must clearly lie with following him over every earthly relationship.  To follow Jesus means that we will not use family responsibilities to avoid obeying Christ, or use other loyalties and commitments to work or school as a reason to put our cross down.  Recently, I saw a 2007 study by the Barna Group which found that seven out of ten adult Christians in America chose their earthly family over their heavenly Father when asked to choose the most important relationship to them.

            Here’s the deal:  What is demanded by Jesus is that in this life with all its competing loyalties, the call of Jesus to discipleship not only takes precedence, but re-defines all the other loyalties we have.  This call involves some level of detachment and turning away from things in order to pursue following Jesus.  All of life is to be infused with being a disciple of Jesus.  If we insist on making other commitments and loyalties as high a priority as following Jesus, we will find ourselves in a pickle.  Several years ago I took a trip with some other church leaders into the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the boonies that we needed special first aid training because if someone got hurt it would be hours before help could come.  We canoed the lakes, and carried our backpacks and canoes between lakes for an entire week.  Whatever we took with us, we had to carry.  Some people thought they needed all kinds of clothes and other accessories.  Not far into the week, they quickly began to leave things along the trail and learned, over time, to see that what they thought was important in their life wasn’t really important to what they were doing.

            We must get back to basics and do what is essential as Christians and churches.  And what is of most importance is following Jesus.  An un-salty disciple is worthless.  Making a profession of Christ without counting the cost is foolish.  Discipleship was never designed to be easy; it was intended to be a public display that Jesus is my Savior and Lord in every area of my life.  What this means is that we will struggle with such questions as:  How do I be a faithful follower of Jesus in my family?  How do I be a disciple, and do the work of discipleship at my job?  How do I practice following Jesus in my neighborhood, and everywhere I go?

            If we do not plan to follow Jesus at home and in the world, we won’t, because all kinds of competing loyalties will take over if we are not intentional about being disciples, and making disciples.  Everything and everyone is to take a back seat to Jesus, who is to be our primary loyalty.  Jesus used two examples to illustrate that we need to count the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:28-33).  In the first, a builder makes a plan and should ensure that he has enough money and materials to complete the entire structure.  Jesus was saying that we must take stock to finish what we have started; if we started well with Christ, we need to do whatever it takes to finish well as a disciple of Jesus. 

What will we do when the going is difficult?  Thomas a Kempis, in his classic work, The Imitation of Christ, said this:  “Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross.  He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering.  He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting.  All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake.  Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion.  Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.”  Jesus said:  “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

            We will never know real joy until we give up pursuing happiness; until we discover that to live is to die, we will tend to be frustrated with our circumstances and other people.  Jesus’ second illustration is of a king and war.  The king makes a battle plan, and if he thinks he cannot defeat the opposing army, he wisely seeks a peace treaty.  What we must understand is that no one is going to oppose God and win, so it is best to make peace with him.  Rather than trying to fit Jesus into our calendar, we are to let our calendar fill out around the center of following Jesus.  If we insist we are too busy for prayer; do not have time for daily reading of the Scriptures; for loving one another; for making disciples (which requires much time and effort), then we have lost our way and must listen to this call of Jesus to be his disciple.

            So, what shall we do?  Imagine that in our heart is a big conference room: a big table, leather chairs, coffee, bottled water, and a whiteboard. A committee sits around the table in your heart. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, and others. The committee is arguing and debating and voting, constantly agitated and upset. Rarely can they come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision. We tell ourselves we're this way because we're so busy with many responsibilities. But the truth is that we're just divided, unfocused, hesitant, and not free.  One way to deal with this situation is to invite Jesus onto the committee. Give him a vote, too. But then he becomes just one more complication. But a better way is to say to Jesus, "My life isn't working. Please come in and fire my committee, every last one of them. I hand myself over to you. I am your responsibility now. Please run my whole life for me."  Being a disciple of Christ is not just adding Jesus; it is also subtracting the idols that are in my heart. 

            Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart; yet it is for those who humbly acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Making disciples is the church’s mission.  Let’s give Jesus his due:  our very lives.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Good Grief


            It is a terrible reality that by living in a fallen world we will all be faced at various times with grief and bereavement.  One of the most significant ministries that a church can engage in is a ministry of comforting those experiencing loss.  The words and actions of people make a difference, for either good or ill, when faced with traumatic times.

            When my wife’s brother died in the early ‘90s due to complications from AIDS, we heard some comforting words, and we heard calloused words that simply did not help.  Phrases such as, “Well, you know he just reaped what he sowed!” and, “You should move on and forget him,” were not only unhelpful but downright hurtful.  On the other hand, there were people who offered a genuine and heartfelt “I’m sorry,” or hugs with no words attached.

In the first chapter of the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, the word “comfort” is used ten times in five verses (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).  It is a beautiful word; one for which the Apostle Paul knew all too well for the many times he faced his own set of trials and tribulations.  He understood God’s design that those who have seen the face of evil and overcame are in the best position to give grace to those who need it most.

Grief attaches itself to any significant change or loss.  Whether it is the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or health, or the empty nest syndrome, or any of a number of losses, it is both natural and necessary to grieve.  Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief, observed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:
  1. Denial – “I’m ok” or “this can’t be happening”
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining – “if only…”
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
We are to come alongside and walk with another through grief, offering helpful words and actions, until the person can accept the new situation and move on.  With any change or loss, there becomes a new normal that we must adjust to.  Everyone’s grief is personal; each individual moves through their own stages of grief, and each one moves on their own timetable.  Sometimes people get “stuck” in one stage and need help getting out.

The way people get unstuck, and the way they come to resolution and acceptance is through telling their story.  So, our role is to listen well.  Our place is neither to give advice, nor to quote a lot of scripture about how everything will be okay.  Our place is to let the grieving person grieve, and come out the other end having grieved well.  Grieving well can only happen if we listen well to those in grief.  We will not listen well if we do not respect the reality that we all must grieve. 

What is more, God always has a listening ear.  He knows grief and bereavement better than all of us, because he experienced seeing the agonizing death of his one and only Son.  And it is through Jesus that genuine acceptance is realized.  Because Christ died and rose again, there is a future resurrection awaiting us and our loved ones.  May you, by faith, enter into life that is truly life by embracing Jesus Christ.  May your grief be turned to joy, and may your comfort overflow.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Difficult Funerals

I do my fair share of funerals.  Many of them are a ministry to families who truly celebrate an aged parent or grandparent, having lived a full and blessed life.  But then there are those occasions when a death is nothing less than a sad and tragic event.  Last week I had one of those funerals.  I officiated a service of a young woman who left three small children and lots of questions from friends, parents, and siblings.  Addiction was at the center of her passing from this life into the next.  The following is the biblical substance of what I said at that funeral, based in a Scripture passage from Isaiah 65:17-25.

This Scripture passage from the prophet Isaiah portrays a vision of hope – a hope for better days when the brokenness of this world will be mended, when that which is lost will be found, and a time when what is incomplete will be made whole.  There is a confident expectation for the believer that our troubles, our sufferings, and our failings are not the last word; instead, the promises of God will have the final say, and those promises will all be realized.

            If it were left up to us, to fallen and fallible humanity, there would be no hope because it is our sin that has made such a mess of things.  But, thanks be to God, that hope is built on what God says and his promises to his people.  And every promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and formed man and woman as his greatest creation.  To human beings alone God created them in his own image and likeness.  But tragedy happened when the people God formed for himself and for his glory decided to rebel and go their own way.  That act of disobedience plunged the entire world into darkness.  To this day we feel and experience the effects of that original Fall into sin and separation from God.  Yet, the story of the Holy Bible does not end there because God, in his grace, did not abandon his creatures but promised to redeem them.  The ultimate act of this grace was God the Father sending God the Son to this earth.  It is the life and teaching of Jesus, his death on a cross, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven that has taken care of the sin issue and the brokenness of the world once for all.  God’s Holy Spirit is at work, even now, bringing the effects of Christ’s finished work to the lives of people so that they may live new lives.  And this is where hope is kindled – that there is coming a time when all things will be made new and the world will be made right because of Jesus Christ.

            Sin, death, and hell do not have the last word.  Everything in this world that is unfair, unjust, twisted, and broken will be healed.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of a vision that is ahead, which is coming.  This is a vision of the future that helps give us some sense and a bit of meaning to our present questions and grief.

            The ancient Israelites, for whom this prophecy was directed, did not always live as they ought to have lived.  The history of the Israelites is a complicated picture of sincere worship of God punctuated with sad times of rebellion and disobedience.  It is true of us all that we are at many times a convoluted mix of both good and bad, capable of both wise decisions and foolish actions.  The reality is that we all bear the marks of being in the image of God, but also of a sinful nature that resembles the Fall of our original ancestors. 

There are times in life when we exemplify the image of God within us – times when we have sincere spiritual excitement and a desire for prayer – times when we can freely share Scripture with family or friends to help them in their hour of need.  Our giftedness and abilities can go far when used for good.  Yet, tragically, we also carry within us the burden of our fallen natures and we are, at times, carried away by that which enslaves.  We are by no means alone in that struggle.  The Apostle Paul, by whom much of the New Testament was written, captured this tension and difficulty.  He said to the Church at Rome:  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  Paul went on to say:  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.  He concluded his thought with this:  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!  Men and women, but for the grace of God, but for the cross of Jesus Christ, we would all be given completely over to trouble!

The prophet Isaiah has given us a glimpse that God’s plans and purposes move toward a climax – that life as we know it right now is not how it will be forever.  Death sometimes cuts off life before it has had a chance to begin well.  Sometimes when that happens, we ponder our own failings and wonder if things could have been different if we had acted a certain way or said a certain thing.  But what transcends all of our human words and earthly actions is the promise of God to make all things new, restore all things, and bring a new era of righteousness into the world.  The hope the Christian has because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that the power of death itself has been destroyed.  A whole new order of things is coming, and it will be so new that the past will be forgiven and forgotten in Jesus’ name.

So, today we have a choice:  to place our faith and hope in Christ, or to go our own way.  God gives us everything we need.  Yet, being human, we, at times, fail to use that which God has given.  But God always has the last word, and his last word to us is salvation and deliverance from the power of sin and death in Jesus’ name.