Monday, June 29, 2015

The Need for Lament

We all face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all events we would rather not face.  What is more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

            The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  We have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss (Lamentations).

            The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

            Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life (Lamentations 3:19-33).  Jeremiah lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

            Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that we need to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.  Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

            Embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church today.  Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  He was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  Here is what he says:  “Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of grieving people.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us.  Slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its intense and powerful work within you.  Let the church be a place of deep healing where the need for lament results in a more compassionate congregation.  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Confronting Courage

David and Goliath is one of the best known stories in the entire Bible (1 Samuel 17:1-50).  It is a classic example of what can be accomplished through one person who chooses to exercise the courage of faith.  This story has served as one of the greatest inspirations for believers down through the centuries to see God give victory to his people against dramatically overwhelming odds.  The New Testament exhorts us to live by faith; but this Old Testament chapter demonstrates to us what can happen when a person of faith chooses to put that faith into action.

            In the ancient world, a typical tactic of warfare was that, when the battle lines were drawn, a champion from each side was chosen and they would fight together, just the two of them, on behalf of the entire army.  It was a fight to the death, and the losing side would submit to the winning side.  This was a way of preventing the terrible carnage of war.  It also created some incredible individual champions.  A champion would be selected not only for his ability to fight, but also for his impressive stature so that there was an intimidation factor to it all.

            Saul was the King of Israel.  He was the logical choice for the combat since he was a head taller than all the other Israelites, and was a rather impressive looking soldier.  But compared to Goliath, Saul looked like a midget.  The intimidation factor worked.  Saul was downright afraid and was not about to put himself out there to face a giant.

            The explanation for the two contrasting responses between David and Saul toward Goliath is simple:  David was brave because of faith in God; Saul was fearful because he was not a man of faith in God.  The opposite of faith is not unbelief; it is fear.  As the muscle of faith grows and develops through trusting God in the daily stresses of life, fear begins to melt away.  The development of faith is a process, and it takes much time.  Through daily spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer; and, putting what we read into practice; the faith muscle begins to grow large and strong so that God is preparing us to face down some pretty big giants.

            Men, in particular, need to confront two great fears:  being found inadequate; and, being controlled by another person or circumstance.  Those two fears were evident in Saul.  He felt inadequate because he compared himself to Goliath.  He felt controlled by the situation because the Philistines were picking a fight.  So, he did nothing.  There are many men who would rather do nothing in the church than be labelled as inadequate or controlled.

            David, in contrast, had practice at facing down foes, the bear and the lion, who threatened the sheep.  David was often out in the countryside all by himself as a shepherd, and his skills were developed in the place where no one was looking.  So, the way to deal with our development of faith is to be assertive in owning our relationship with God on a daily basis, as well as stepping out and serving the local church with courage. 

            It was not just Saul that was intimidated by Goliath; the entire army of Israel was hiding behind the battle lines cringing in fear.  In contrast, David discerned that there was no reason to avoid a big bullying blowhard.  It appears that David was the only person able to see Goliath as he really was:  a small person in comparison to a big God.  By faith, David understood that Goliath is no match for God.

            One person full of faith can accomplish the improbable while an army full of fear cannot accomplish a thing.  We might have a tendency to think that everything in church ministry has to be large with a big splash to it.  Somehow if we had an elaborate program with lots of people, then we could accomplish big things for God.  Yet, we need to step out in courageous faith.  Oftentimes we want an army of people because then we can still hide behind other people’s bravery while continuing to nurse our secret fears and insecurities. 

            Here is a reality check:  No other person can do our faith and relational work for us.  The Beaver Cleaver philosophy of life works something like this:  if I get in trouble or in a pickle of some sort, I’ll just ignore it and hope it goes away.  But Goliath is not going anywhere.  He will still be there tomorrow.  But if we will own the spiritual boot camp that God wants to put us through, then we will be prepared like David to take on the giant.  The greatest single element every church needs is people full of faith who have the wisdom to confront the true problems it faces.  Let that one sink into your forehead….

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Renovation of the Heart

            This past week, my wife and I enjoyed several days at our denomination’s annual meeting.  It was a wonderful time of worship, fellowship, making new friends, and discovering resources for church ministry.  Embedded into the time was, of course, the matter of business that goes into any kind of church or denominational apparatus.  At its best, church polity concerns itself with deep discernment, focused prayer, and intentional listening to God’s Spirit.  At its worst, church political structures clunk along with loud opinion-making, the dysfunction of personal agendas, and an inability to understand what others are truly saying.

            I appreciated the decorum of my denomination’s delegates and the leadership that went into ensuring that policy and procedure were carried out with decency and order.  Yet, as critically vital as church polity is in carrying out the business of the church, policies and procedures alone cannot bring a total transformation of life – only the Holy Spirit of God can do that.  As I sit and write today, a church shooting in South Carolina last night took the lives of nine black parishioners.  It seems clear that the tragedy was racially motivated.  Here is the point I am making:  even though an Emancipation Proclamation was passed in this country 150 years ago; even though Jim Crow laws have been upended; even though African Americans have equal access and opportunity according to the laws of this country; none of those laws, political triumphs, and policy making we have experienced in the United States has the ability to do a thorough renovating of any person’s heart from one of malicious bigot to benevolent citizen.

            We all desperately need faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to even begin addressing the profound brokenness of the human experience.  Apart from the Spirit, there will be individuals who continue in soul crushing stances of justifying their racism, excluding the LGBTQ community from their list of acquaintances, and insisting that their ideas are the only decent ones worth hearing. 

            Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount in order to upend such proud thinking. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Only those who are spiritual beggars recognizing they have nothing to stand on in and of themselves are worthy of Christ’s righteousness.  In a world where pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is hailed and validated, the biblical virtues of humility and meekness seem almost like concepts from some bygone era.  Yet, like a church building devastated by a tornado, until we can come to the end ourselves and admit how much our hearts are in chaos and need Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit, there will continue to be an endless stream of posturing and positioning to get what we want so that the other who seems so different from us will not get what they want or even need.  Indeed, there will be no mercy, purity, and peacemaking apart from identifying the deep depravity of our own hearts and inviting God to do an extreme makeover of our interior lives.

            While I applaud and laud every policy and law that turns the tide away from injustice and puts a death nail into systemic evil, I am realistic enough to discern that only the gospel of grace can bring human hearts in line with the kind of society that will truly be characterized by peace.  I hope that you will join me in praying for the shalom of God to takeover this broken world so that our hearts of stone are replaced by hearts of flesh by the Spirit who alone transforms both culture and church, society and self, law and life.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Do Not Lose Heart

We all face circumstances and seasons of life that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle.  We have no promise from Scripture that we will avoid trouble.  Instead, Jesus promises trouble to his followers (John 15:18-20; 1 John 3:13; 2 Timothy 2:12).  The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming that we might lapse into losing heart by either blaming ourselves for the adversity we experience and wish things were different, or by blaming others for our troubles and believing that if they would just get their act together all would be well with my soul.  No matter the source or nature of the problem, the church needs a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. We all need to be reminded of the grace we possess in Jesus Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both a spiritual and a physical reality.  If we believe this truth in our hearts we will be raised both spiritually and physically (Romans 10:9-10).  This faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day.  The very same afflictions that cause our bodies to degenerate and dispirit us are the means to achieving a glorious resurrected existence (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).  There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death.  The way of Jesus was to absorb the shame of the world’s violent ways on the cross so that we might be raised with him in his resurrection. 

However, this does not mean that the church will never experience difficulty in this present life.  In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances.  There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us.  Just because we are saved does not mean we are inoculated from daily stress and pressure because it is the troubles of this life that teach us to trust in God and weans us from all that we have previously trusted in to deal with those troubles.

The truth of God using adversity and trouble in our lives begs several questions for each believer and every local church: 

Ø  Do we give inordinate attention to either the tangibly physical or the intangible spiritual? 
Ø  How does Christ’s resurrection impact us today? 
Ø  How do we interpret our earthly troubles? 
Ø  What place does faith in God have in our daily decisions? 
Ø  The older we get, are we being renewed in Christ? 
Ø  Does the Lord’s Table, as a tangible sign and seal of our intangible faith, shape our hope?

When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada.  She has been a paraplegic for forty-five years after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck.  After the accident, lying in the hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal.  But she could not even kill herself since she could not physically move.  Finally, in her darkest moment she cried out to God with what she says to this day was the most significant prayer she ever prayed:  “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.”  And he did.  Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and her handicaps.  She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.

We cannot accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions if we do not acknowledge them.  They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them.  Paul was open with others about his life:  We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered…. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).  Paul faced whippings and beatings, stoning and shipwreck, hunger and poverty, danger and trouble, not to mention all the pressures of his concern for all the churches he established.  Through it all Paul was transparent and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions.  It is our brokenness and not the pretension of having it all together that shows the grace of God to others.

Over and over again Paul described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes:  strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty.  Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation for his own purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal.  Every church is inherently paradoxical, a strange amalgam of victory and defeat, faith and doubt, full of sorrow and joy.  Let us all embrace this reality and allow God to use whatever means he so desires to shape his church for kingdom purposes.  Soli Deo Gloria.