As we have for a few years now, my family and I spent the better part of the month of June with family in Northwest GA and Southeast TN. This is always an amazing time filled with cousins, swimming, day camps and food…we always seem to be eating. And I love this area of the country because it’s so familiar. I love the views of the mountains and the valleys and even the way the clouds roll in quickly before a thunderstorm; which seems to happen almost every summer afternoon. The crazy thing is that this familiar view also greeted us as we rolled back into Odessa a week ago. As we came in on the highway from Midland we could see lightning in the distance and the familiar cloud formations rolling in as Odessa was blessed with much needed rain. And luckily for us, we were able to get our car unloaded before the deluge hit.
There’s a verse in scripture that alludes to what the presence of a cloud might be in our own lives. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us , fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” – Hebrews 12:1-2 I love the imagery played out in the the text. I recently was flying from Odessa back to Atlanta before our trek back into town and our entire flight was dictated by the presence of clouds (albeit storm clouds) in Atlanta. After we boarded, an hour later than scheduled, we then had to sit on the tarmac for an extra hour. Once we did get clearance to take off, most of the flight was smooth…until we began to descend into Atlanta. I guess the only way I can describe it is by the rides I seek to avoid at the amusement park i.e. it was a roller coaster of a landing. It was crazy how these clouds effected everything we were a part of even from a distance.
This Sunday I will begin delivering my last series of sermons for the people of Odessa First Church of the Nazarene. This has been a roller coaster of an adventure and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t terrified and excited all at the same time. But I do know one thing. When I step onto the stage on Sunday it is only through the power of God and the presence of the overwhelming cloud of witnesses that go with me that I am able to do so. This cloud has gone with me from Rossville, GA to Nashville, TN, by way of Yulee, FL while building up strength in Flint, MI in order to serve for over three years in Odessa, TX. And this cloud continues to grow as we prepare to serve alongside the families of Nashville First Church of the Nazarene in a few short weeks. This cloud is filled with families and loved ones who have cared for my family, invested in my ministry, prayed for me daily and loved me beyond words. Even as I type this your faces flash before me as my eyes fill with tears and I thank God for him bringing us together. It is only by the grace of God and your presence in my life that I can even call myself pastor. And I am both humbled and challenged by your cloud-like presence in my life. So I will continue to run with perseverance the race marked out for me. And I will boldly proclaim the love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs it. All the while knowing that I am surrounded by a cloud that is a testament to the love and faithfulness of the God we all serve.
This last Sunday morning I was up with my coffee early and I was reading a blog post about pastors. One of the concluding lines in the post suggested that pastors should get thirty minutes of exercise a few hours before they engage with their congregation…so I went for a run. It was a nice muggy hot morning in Odessa, but the thing that struck me the most was the moon. It was a fingernail sliver of a moon and as I turned a corner it completely disappeared. I had to do a double take, because I was pretty sure moon phases don’t happen that quickly. I then realized some clouds had simply passed in front and it soon returned to its normal phase and I returned to sweating early on a Sunday morning.
The moon has always been fascinating to me. I can’t imagine what it was like for ancient people to look up and see this light in the sky that at the end of the day wasn’t even a light at all. We of course know that the moon itself is not a source of light, but a source of reflection. Even on those nights when the full moon seems to light up everything you see, it still is only reflecting the light it receives from the sun. But the ancient Hebrews described it this way in the Genesis creation poem, “God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” – Genesis 1:16 They saw the moon as a light itself, which would be one’s perception, but its role seems to be the more important facet. The moon was present to govern the night. The word in Hebrew is memshalah and can be translated as the power to rule or govern. The moon was thought of as the light to have power to rule over the night.
Now here is where it gets fun. ‘The moon is only a reflection’ you might say, and yet the better it reflects, the brighter it is. And the brighter the moon, the lesser the night/darkness. In some ways our lives themselves reflect the moon. We are called to reflect the light of Christ to the world around us. The darkness or the storm clouds or whatever may come our way shouldn’t diminish our reflection because we have been granted the “power to rule” over the darkness. 1 John 4:4 puts it this way, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” The power of Christ in you…the power to reflect the light of Christ is greater than all the other powers combined. Sometimes I hear people complain about the darkness around them or the storms that seem to move in on them and I wonder…how will their reflection be affected? In his book Velvet Elvis Rob bell poses the following, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.” Maybe that is the question to ask ourselves today. Is our light governing the night? Are we reflecting all the Jesus we should to the world? Perhaps we may someday find our reflective light shining so bright that people can’t see where Christ ends and we begin.
Last night just before bedtime, a boomer of a West Texas thunderstorm began to roll in. This immediately means a few things…number one, Odessa will get some much needed rain (this is always the case regardless of how much we get). Number two; that I myself will have a potentially wonderful night of sleep as I love sleeping with rain in the background. And lastly, that no one else in my household will sleep well, so number two is immediately negated. And last night was no exception to that rule as I type this through bleary sleep-depraved eyes. But it got me thinking about control…or lack thereof. My kids are prime examples of the fear of lack of control. My ten-yr-old most recently has even begun to express his increasing fear of tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and any other kind of natural phenomena beyond his control. But control really is an illusion…isn’t it?
I guess it goes all the way back to the garden…I mean waaaay back. We couldn’t handle not being in control of our circumstances; our fate. And so we ate. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” – Genesis 3:6. And ever since we have operated under the illusion of control that sin allows us to think makes sense. If I just get this piece of my life figured out. If I just work hard enough these things will all fall into place. If I just have enough money, power, popularity, beauty, security, etc. then all will be well…except it won’t. In fact, the invitation made to us in the wake of a world broken by the illusion of control sounds more like this, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” – John 12:24-25
Tomorrow is Good Friday and combined with Easter it represents the two most important days for the life of a Christian…why? Because it reminds us that we are not in control. Christ himself, in order to redeem us, showed us that life is best lived when we yield up control and just live for God. The apostle Paul described it this way, “When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:7-8. Christ gave up control of His life even to the point of death at our hands (talk about yielding control) so that we might know there is no power in control. In fact, true victory and power comes from giving up control or even realizing that we never even really had control. Perhaps this is the truth of Good Friday. That as we are called to give up the illusion of control we realize that we have a Savior who has already showed us the way. So may you give up the desire for control and the fear that accompanies it and live in the promise of Good Friday and the Hope of Easter.
Yesterday on the drive into school my kids and I ended up on the subject of death. Now granted, this isn’t a subject that often enters our realm of family discussion, but for some reason it came up yesterday. And in my fatherly wisdom I found myself saying these encouraging words, “Well, we all die someday”. Fortunately my son quickly interjected, “That’s ok. Because that’s the way we get to heaven.” (Luckily my kids somehow survive despite their dad’s morbid view of reality). But let’s face it. We all know the two things we are guaranteed in life are “death and taxes”. And sometimes we in the church struggle with our mortality and how to relate it to our immortality. We sometimes think that the blessings of the life to come aren’t real if they don’t somehow resonate in our current setting…but this isn’t really the gospel.
In some of the last teachings we see Jesus delivering to His disciples before his trial and death we read these words from the book of John, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 Oftentimes I think we misread this verse. We see ourselves as the “overcomers” of the world when we are really are only guaranteed to “have trouble”. The word in the verse above we read for trouble or tribulation is the Greek word, thlipsis. It’s most literal translation is “pressure” and it comes from the idea of ruts being worn into a path/road. Tell me that’s not encouraging. In this life you will get potholes. And really it’s the one thing we are guaranteed…this world will eventually end us if Jesus doesn’t return first.
Luckily that’s not where the story ends. Although we may lose, although we may be overcome, beat down, pressured, etc. this is not the End. Jesus tells us to be at peace as he has overcome the world. He has claimed victory over the temporal limitations of this world and made a way through death into life. And so we find peace. Truthfully this isn’t easy. When the ruts worn into us come through things like sickness, brokenness, bills, debts, familial discord, job loss, and grief we long to be the ones who overcome. But at the end of the day we don’t overcome…we take comfort in He who has overcome and speaks these words to us in the final book, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” – Revelation 21:4-5. The faith that we hold onto places it’s confidence in a God who has not only overcome but promises to make all things new. This is how we are not overcome ourselves and find peace even in the midst of the storms of life.
And truthfully, we who are called of Christ are also called to comfort and proclaim good news to those who have been overcome by life and it’s troubles. Our calling is not simply to look to the life to come but also to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Often times we find peace in serving those who themselves can’t find peace.
So may you take heart today. May you find peace and bring peace to others through Christ our Lord; the one who has overcome.