Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Candy Crush Saga. One of these four had to catch your attention. Yesterday on my drive home from work, which albeit is about a 5 minute commute I noticed a phenomenon. While at a stoplight I lost myself in a song, but started to look around wondering who might be pointing and laughing at the guy rocking out to Needtobreathe. But here’s the weird part. No one was looking at me. While we were stopped, for maybe all of about two minutes, everyone I saw was looking at their phone. What have we become? Fifteen years ago I didn’t even own a cell phone and now I have a mini-computer in my pocket. And I was slow to get on the smart phone bandwagon. But now all of a sudden, these things are everywhere…and I mean everywhere.
There is this weird maxim tucked away in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a couple of times that if you weren’t paying attention to, you might miss. “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12. And then again in 10:23, “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.” Now in a way, Paul was trying to relate to the Corinthians licensing their lifestyles that conflicted a bit with their witness. And I get that piece, but I think this might be able to relate to our overstimulated technology tethered culture as well. You will notice in the first reference of Paul’s use that he includes the phrase “I will not be mastered…”. The Greek root of this phrase literally alludes to the loss of the freedom of choice/freedom to choose. And then in the second occurrence we see the insinuation that perhaps these things might be okay, but they aren’t really improving our lives.
In all of this I’m not saying technology is a bad thing. In fact, there are so many benefits to media and technology that for the most part they outweigh some of the negative issues. But think about this with me for a moment. How many of you, when you find yourself in a time of silence/lull immediately reach for that phone? This is where I think the issue may take root. For thousands of years humans have been known for their innovation and cultural achievements. And now, I’m known for my high score on Flappy Bird or Candy Crush!?! The one thing we have that we constantly spend and can never recall is time. And I am scared to think of the hours (maybe even days at this point) I have wasted because of seemingly harmless activity on this miniature computer I keep closer to me than anything else. Maybe these things aren’t so bad…but I think I might need to find out who or what masters the empty spaces in my life and what better things they might be filled with. And I think that if we fill these spaces with more meaningful encounters/endeavors we might be amazed at what we can do and the freedom we find that we have.
I rarely have sleep issues. Truly. I think I have just been gifted in the arena of sleeping and achieving good sleep. My wife and I have had many discussions about this and sometimes we drift off (see what I did there) onto the topic of the need for sleep anyway. It is odd isn’t it. For some reason, all of us animals in the Mammal classification have to stop, close our eyes and place our bodies in a catatonic state in order to keep functioning. In fact, if we as humans tried to go longer than eleven days without sleep, we would die. So as you can see it’s pretty important. Now like I said before, I rarely if ever struggle with sleep. My wife on the other hand? She has to have the perfect balance. The lights have to be off, our static noise machine has to be on, the temperature has to be just right, etc. And even then, she may not sleep well.
You may be saying to yourself, what in the world does a discussion about sleep and sleep habits have to do with the church? Well, for one thing I found myself awake at 4:00 AM today and so my sleep was off a bit today. For another I think the church needs to work out it’s own sleep/wake issues. In Ephesians 5, Paul references a passage of scripture out of Isaiah 60 in reference to the life of the church. Isaiah put it like this, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2) I think Paul’s reference to this passage illuminates (see what I did there) the fact as we are called into new life in Christ we are called into the light, in order to be the light. And I think this has huge implications for us.
For those of you who don’t know, I was a youth pastor for ten years prior to my immediate assignment. During those ten years, I can’t tell you how many retreats I was a part of, but I can assure you that my wake-up call was usually the same. It would usually involve some sort of pot or pan and spoon and the melodious singing of the old chorus, “Rise and Shine and give God the Glory, Glory” (my retreat goers always loved this). But I like the implications of that song. Each day we are challenged with getting up, getting going, and shining a light, not on us, but on Jesus. In fact, I think this should be such an all-consuming passion that the church universal almost appears like an insomniac for the constant light being shown on Jesus. Do I believe that we all need to disrupt our sleeping habits for the kingdom of God? No. Like I said, I like to sleep and I think I am pretty good at it (and it is a human need). But do I think that we as the church need to wake up a bit more as to our true calling in the world? Yes. We are called to point to Jesus, not ourselves. So Rise and Shine and give God the glory and make sure when you do you shine the light on Jesus, and not on yourself or your own agenda.
I love people. I really do. And it’s not just something I tell myself or other people to convince me that it’s true. But sometimes I think we underestimate the cost of a word like love. For instance, I in any given day will utter the phrase “I love Dr. Pepper” and a few breaths later tell my wife, “I love you”. But obviously these two things don’t, or at least shouldn’t carry the same weight. So what does it mean for us to say we love each other? Just last night we were hashing out a portion of our church’s mission statement (Worshiping God, Loving People, Serving the World) and we got a bit hung up on what it means to truly love people. We even read the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 about love and realized the gravity of the call to love. The one phrase that always seems to trip me up is, “Love keeps no record of wrongs”.
Let’s be honest for a minute. There are some people we keep at a distance because of their behavior. We may not physically push them away or go out of our way to avoid them, but we do create space between us. Whether it is through things we say to to other people, posts and articles we share on Facebook or other varieties of social media, or views we have espoused in the past, we have inadvertently kept a record of wrongs and it has been killing our witness. I think another way to look at this is from Paul’s other letter to the Corinthian church. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. I want you to catch this…God was reconciling all people to Himself not counting their sins against them. And then the craziest part? We are now ambassadors of that same reconciliation…as if God himself is working through us.
So let’s backtrack a bit. When I say that I love people, it takes on a whole new dynamic. I need to see people as God sees them. So desperate to reconcile that he doesn’t even count their sins against them but instead reaches out with arms of love and draws them into Himself. So when I see people I no longer see their sins, their depravity, their brokenness…I simply see someone that God is desperate to reconcile and in that fashion I love them. If we say we love people then we are called to throw away our agendas, our preconceived notions, our biases, our fear, our misunderstanding, our political alignments, our view of their sins and simply love. And what does love do? “…love covers over a multitude of sins.” – 1 Peter 4:8. May we learn to stop counting and stop distancing ourselves through any kind of medium and simply, truly, deeply, love.
As a pastor you experience things sometimes differently than others. I’m not saying we have super powers or anything like that…although admittedly as a comic book fan that would be cool. But the church sees the best in human endeavors and sometimes the worst in human experiences. And as a pastor you see this a lot. Lately it seems like those in and around our church have experienced a tremendous amount of tragedy. And sometimes I admit that I am even at a loss on how to deal with this. Death is awful. It’s horrible. It’s not the way things are intended to go. And yet, we as the church are called to minister in these dark places and dark times with people. Now some may try to tell you that we as Christians are supposed to have the right theology and the right words to help people navigate this sadness, this loss…but I’m not sure this is the case.
We who bear the name Christian claim our ultimate example in the person of Jesus Christ. And there is this story in the gospels where we see Jesus’ reaction to death and loss. Jesus had surrounded himself during his time on earth with friends. Some of these we know as the disciples and there were others as well. In Bethany Jesus called Mary, Martha and Lazarus friends. After the death of Lazarus, Jesus comes to be with Martha and Mary in their time of grief. True, he does speak words of comfort out of the Divine self and Lazarus is raised. But it’s what he does in the human self that has the greatest impact for us. When he is shown the tomb and he sees the loss and the brokenness around him we read the smallest and possibly most powerful verse in all of the gospels, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). You see, we affirm that Jesus was fully God and fully man. The amazing things he did in his Divine self set him apart from the rest of humanity. But what he did out of his humanity sets an example for us all.
I believe one of the things that made Jesus such a powerful figure in all of his teachings, miracles and the like was His ability to be fully present in every moment with us. After all, His name was to be called Immanuel, God with us. And sometimes God with us is simply that. In our pain, in our loss and in our mourning, Jesus is with us – he sheds tears with us. And in so doing He sets the example for all of us as well. We aren’t called to move mountains on behalf of those who hurt, but we are called to be with them. We can be a shoulder to cry on, a hug that has been missed or just someone to listen while they share with us their pain. So my challenge to all of us and to myself? Be present, be a friend, don’t worry about saying the right things but be willing to shed tears and share burdens out of the example Jesus set for us in his humanity.
I have come to love a species in West Texas that I now know many despise. It has left it’s mark on many a car and lawn cushion across the Permian Basin. In fact, it is even sometimes known as the Devil Bird. I am speaking of course of the Great Tailed Grackle. And I guess I need to provide a caveat to my earlier statement. I don’t love their inordinate amount of fecal droppings in Odessa parking lots. I don’t love that they sometimes buzz heads around fast food stores and shopping centers. I don’t even really like their beady yellow eyes that seem to stare right into your soul. But I do love to watch them sing. The males in particular have this way about them. They arch their back, point their heads toward the heavens and sing a beautiful song with complete abandon. Now some may say that it’s not beautiful but rather weird. But it’s so unique and different that there is beauty to be found in it. Especially if we truly believe that birds are a part of the song of creation towards their Creator.
Like a lot of the things I observe in and around nature, I think there is a lesson to be learned from the grackle, especially for those of us who profess Christ. Many people are put off by the grackle and it’s guano spreading habits. But likewise sometimes Christians are most ill represented by our poo-pooing of culture around us. Here’s an exercise. Go to Google or any other search engine that has an auto-fill feature and type in the words “Why are Christians”. The auto-fill portion that follows will help you to see that our grackle-like tendencies aren’t helping the cause of Christ. One of the other criticisms of the grackles are their tendency to be annoying in their mob-like roosting fashion. And let’s be honest, sometimes when we as Christians jump on certain band-wagons in mass we become ineffective and a bit annoying.
But their is beauty still to be found in the grackle and even in us. The grackle’s song can be lovely despite it’s shortcomings because of the nature with which he praises God. Likewise we in Christ are called to glorify God in all that we do with abandon. The Westminster Confession put’s it this way, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” We are called to glorify God in everything we do. You know, if the grackle could be more discreet in it’s roosting and fecal issues but be more public in it’s singing perhaps we wouldn’t call it the Devil Bird. Likewise if we as Christians were more discreet in certain areas and more cognizant of the reflection we place on God through our actions than perhaps that search engine auto-fill might change. The writer of Hebrews speaks of our obligation to glorify God in these terms, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” – Hebrews 13:15-16
Maybe we just need to focus on glorifying God through praise and goodness and sharing with others. Then I think we may be less grackle and more songbird when it comes to the way others see us.
It’s Maundy Thursday. This is the day in the Christian Calendar that we set aside to commemorate and remember the Last Supper. This is a beautiful part of the Passion story and I love for our focus to be on the remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. But my focus always seems to drift towards his final moments with them instead. The last moments that Jesus spent with those he shared life with in his pre-resurrection state were spent in a garden, Gethsemane to be precise. In that moment Jesus encourages his disciples to watch and pray with him. He specifically calls Peter, James and John to watch and pray more closely with Him only to find them sleeping three times. During the second of these interactions Jesus utters this phrase, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Mark 14:38. And I’ve always read this as Jesus chastising/correcting His disciples, but what if it was just as much a reflection of His own struggle?
This is one of those unique passages in scripture where we struggle with our Trinitarian theology. We, and when I say we, I am referring to those who claim Jesus as Lord, believe and affirm through our creeds that God is three in one. Yet when it comes to the passion and last moments of Jesus’ life we often struggle with reconciling God in flesh. In fact, in the garden we find Jesus praying for the cup to pass from Him while in conversation with the Divine life. What if this request, this struggle, this agony was born out of Jesus humanity versus His Divinity i.e. the Spirit is willing but the Flesh is weak? It at least could give us new eyes into Jesus struggles up until the very end. ‘Am I ready for this cup?’ ‘Have I done all I needed to do?’ ‘Will they understand what is about to take place?’
I think sometimes that those of us on our Christian journey need to gain perspective as to where we each are along the way (I don’t think it’s coincidental that our Faith is sometimes called The Way). Some of us are in the prime of our ministry. We find ourselves consumed with spreading the gospel and sharing the Kingdom in all that we do. Some of us have yet to be Baptized and our ministry has not yet begun. Some of us find ourselves in the Garden. We have given our life to the church and to God’s Kingdom and now we know what is ahead, but are we ready? I guess I say all this to say that although we may be in differing perspectives in our ministry we are all still on the same journey. And even though our perspectives may be different we are all still called to love and support each other regardless of that stage. And our perspective ultimately should never effect the way we act towards those on the journey as well as those yet to begin, because our perspective doesn’t change our calling.
So today, as you remember our Lord and Savior in His final stage, may you be cognizant of your own stage and know that God still calls us along The Way to be ambassadors of reconciliation to those around us.
You hear it a lot in church. I need God. Or maybe you have sung “I need Thee every hour”. Or maybe even “I need Thee oh I need Thee, every hour I need Thee”. Of course this leads me to ask, do we know what it means to need God? Or do we truly need Him?
That word ‘need’ is a funny word. The etymology of the word shows that it was born out of the idea that something would “be necessary, be required (for some purpose).” The definition in today’s language shows that need means, “to have need of; to require.” (wasn’t it a rule that you couldn’t use the word in a definition?). One of the underlying ideas behind this word study and definition is the idea that “need of something” serves “some purpose”. And so I think about this with our language toward God. Why do we say we need God? What purpose do we think He might serve? I mean most of us seem so bent on providing for ourselves or our loved ones. We work so diligently to insure that our “physical needs”, our desires and our wants are satisfied. We carry on as if all of this depends on us and so I wonder, where is our need for God?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about our worry about material things and provisions. He ends up this portion of the teaching with this very familiar phrase, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matthew 6:33 I think sometimes we get the cart before the horse in this scenario. In our pursuit of all of these things prior to God’s Kingdom we somehow supplant our need for God with our need for things and we loose out on what it really means to need God.
I want to need God. I don’t want to need things. And yet I find myself in a world where my need for God is choked out by all of this other stuff that seems to take over my needs. I think that’s why Paul said this in his letter to the Philippians, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:8,10-11. Paul, who wrote 2/3s of our modern New Covenant canon wrote that all accomplishments, achievements, pursuits, etc. outside of Christ were garbage. And he wanted, longed, desired, dare I say needed to know Christ.
I want to need Christ like that. I want to find myself desperate for God in every avenue of my life. That is my prayer today and I hope it is yours as well.