Yesterday was a pretty stressful day for me. As those of you who have been following my journey know, this year I became a middle school science teacher. And one of the responsibilities of teachers is to occasionally measure to see how well the information we are passing along to our students is being recorded in their brains. In other words, we give a test. And it was so stressful! It was almost like one of those, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” moments. Here I am asking them to give back to me all I’ve poured into them for the last nine weeks and I soooo want everyone to pass with flying colors…but not everyone was ready. Sure, some of them did great. Some of them even performed right in the middle where you would expect them to be. But some of them failed. And my heart broke for them. I immediately began to try to find ways to help them recover their grade (and don’t worry, a fellow teacher helped me come up with a fair and equitable solution). But I felt like the test was for me almost as much as it was for them.
I mean, think about it for a minute. For nine weeks we have worked on projects, had teaching moments, lectures, home assignments and group discussions. To even top it all off, there was a review they have had access too for about 4 days. I gave them all of these resources to succeed and some of them still struggled during the test. The funny thing is, I never really struggled with tests when I was a student; yes, I was one of those kids. But it doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with them now. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to help them any way I can now. I’m reminded of the passage of scripture in the letter to the Hebrews about how God sees us during times of testing. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16 Did you see it there? Jesus has dealt with every test/temptation that will come our way, was faultless, but empathizes with our situation to the point of pouring out grace to help.
You see there are so many ways that God continually pours grace into our lives. We see it in the sunrise each day. We feel in in the breath that we breathe. We read it in the pages of the Bible. We hear it from the saints that go before us. We’re reminded of it as we gather to sing songs about God. The moments of beauty and love in this world are being poured into us moment by moment so that when we face difficult times and hardship and temptation, we know where our strength lies. And even if we do fail or we don’t measure up or we forget about all that has been poured into us, we still have a high priest who empathizes/feels for us and is ready to lavish grace on us yet again to help bring us through. So maybe you’re the student who always feels like the tests come when you aren’t ready. There’s grace for you. Maybe you’re the student who knows the material, but just can’t seem to recall it. There’s grace for you. Maybe you’re the student who gets so worked up by the test in front of you that the truths you know that you know seem too far away to be real. There’s grace for you.
I pray that you would find yourself being poured into moment by moment and day by day, by the God who knows you and wants to see you succeed as you are clothed by grace for the times that test.
My daughter has a big heart; particularly when it comes to animals. Even now, at 6 years of age, she has declared herself a vegetarian because she doesn’t want to eat animals. And this doesn’t just apply to her dietary habits either. I’m afraid our house may eventually be declared a state refuge or sanctuary as any animal she comes into contact with gets “adopted” into the Arp household. Her most recent acquisition is a lizard, named Lizzy of course, that she and a friend rescued from the sink at their home while we were having lunch earlier this week. Of course, although it is my daughter who “rescues” these animals, it is most often yours truly who gets to care for them. But I think I may have the same love for all God’s creatures great and small. One of my favorite stories I like to tell people is from the time my wife and I got to visit an animal sanctuary in Florida called White Oak Conservation.* One of the members of our church worked there and so we got to get a VIP tour…which was amazing.
I love the idea of animal sanctuaries. Who knows…maybe our house may be declared one someday (With four kids it already feels like a zoo most of the time). But the use of the term sanctuary as being a safe place developed almost as quickly the use for it being a place of worship in the English language. The term was derived from the Latin term sanctus which meant holy, but the usage for sanctuary as being a refuge or a safe place derived from the church early providing a safe place for those who sought shelter from oppressive authorities or city-states from as early as the time of Constantine. So now today you find the term being used for wildlife sanctuaries and even sometimes in correlation with political places of refuge. But I wonder how often our own church sanctuaries are actually safe places for people. How often do people come into our churches discouraged, beat-up, labeled, slandered, disenfranchised, alienated, etc. and feel more of the same?
When God was in flesh on earth his main hangup with the way things were going was with the religious folk. If you struggle with this idea, just read through the Gospels again. In Matthew 23 you can kind of tell that Jesus has reached his boiling point and before he launches into what we call the Seven Woes against the religious experts we read this, “They (the religious teachers) tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” – Matthew 23:4 I wonder how often our churches do much of the same. When broken and hurting and abused and different people come into your church do they feel much of the same? Are we quick to continue to pile upon them burdens and labels and restrictions and separations and more ways of making them feel unloved? Or, when people come into our sanctuaries do they feel safe?
Maybe my daughter has a point as a 6-yr-old vegetarian. She lives this way because she loves animals. Maybe our churches could/should create more space where people don’t keep getting devoured but where they feel safe and can truly come to experience what life in Christ is all about.
*You can check out this amazing place here: https://www.whiteoakwildlife.org/
A week or so ago I was part of a Senior High camp…not out of the ordinary for a youth pastor I realize. But with this particular camp I had the privilege of hosting early morning (8:00 AM for Senior High Students) coffee talks. These talks revolved around theological issues and we would sit and discuss these for an hour or so. The craziest part about all of this…the students actually showed up. We would average between 30 – 60 students every morning. They would come in bleary eyed and sometimes bed-headed to discuss things like Theodicy, Trinitarian theology and even Atonement theory. It was on the last discussion day that the issue of sin came to the forefront. What is sin? Granted there were all sorts of text book definitions and Sunday School answers thrown out and I even added my own mix to the pile, “Anything that separates us from God”. And one of my counter parts (who shall remain nameless…) threw out the questions, “What about anything that separates us from our neighbor?” Hmmmm….(Now you are privy to my inner monologue) what about that?
And thus began a mini exploration that led me to a passage I shared recently with my students. It goes a bit like this: Jesus is hanging out teaching, per the usual, and a teacher of the law comes up to question Him. He asks Jesus a very pointed question as to which commandment is the greatest. “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 Now it can possibly be derived that if the entire law and prophets hang on these two commandments then any violation of these two commandments is a violation of all the law and the prophets. That being said, if we are commanded to love God and our neighbor above all other commandments then anything that breaks that love, creates that separation would therefore be sin…
This one is by very nature tough. It’s easy (well maybe not easy) to understand sin as a violation against God. We understand the need for atonement and forgiveness and reconciliation when it comes to sin and God. But what about when it comes to our neighbor? And Biblically we are not allowed to think of our neighbor solely as the person on our immediate street, but effectively (see The Parable of The Good Samaritan) our neighbor must be seen defined by those we consider our enemies…the others. Now what do we do with this command? What do we do with this separation? How do we embody the Kingdom of God with lives counter to sin when it comes to our neighbors? Honestly I wish there were a clean cut answer. The scary (and yet infinitely opportunistic) part is that there isn’t. And crazy enough we are given this life to figure that out. So what are you doing to bridge the separation…or better yet, what are you allowing God to do through you to bridge the separation?
It’s funny what can come out of early morning talks around coffee with teenagers.
You ever find yourself clinging to one of those Bible verses and then realize it doesn’t really mean what you thought it meant? Okay, so maybe that doesn’t happen all the time, but it happened to me today. My life as of late has been rather disquieted for a variety of reasons and so I looked to one of those verses for comfort and I reached for Psalm 46:10, “Be Still and know that I am God.” (SPOILER ALERT…I MIGHT RUIN THIS VERSE FOR SOME OF YOU READING AS WELL). I have always thought of this verse as a peaceful reflection of meditation and quiet, but if you ever read the rest of the Psalm you would be left puzzling too. The Psalm is all about conquering and thundering and exaltation and big, loud images of God. And so in my mind I wasn’t sure “be still” fit. And truth be told it didn’t. The word in Hebrew is actually raphah which is best translated “fall down”….which actually fits with the rest of the Psalm. Not that this in anyway means that I don’t think we need to be still in the knowledge of God and in who He is, but the context is a bit different.
So then I found myself seeking for another word of peace that could speak into my life in a better fashion and I stumbled upon a very fitting and familiar passage, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. I love that title, “God, the God of all Peace”. And the word for sanctify is beautiful as well, hagiazō, “set apart”. The God of peace is seeking to set us apart completely from all of the other stuff that is trying to define us. From the hectic hustle and bustle, chaos, anxiety, etc., God is seeking to set us apart, define us differently, give us peace. And the best part about all of this is that it is God’s action and not our own. All to often we speak about sanctification and holiness as if it’s something we accomplish, but that’s Biblical incoherence. God sanctifies, God sets apart, God gives true peace.
It’s easy to find ourselves in the doing and going, and longing to “be still” (Still a little peeved at a Bible translator somewhere). But I take great comfort in the fact that the action being accomplished in my life is being wrought by the God of peace. And maybe sometimes I do need to be still and take joy and comfort in that. So today, may the God of all peace, God himself, continue to set you apart in the midst of all of your non-peaceful hectic existence.