A Shattered World (Response to Shooting at Emanuel AME Church)

pray for charleston 2Our world is shattered. The brokenness revealing itself on a Wednesday night during a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine of God’s faithful murdered in the sanctuary of the Lord. A man with a self-assigned operation of animosity walks into Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and displaces a haven of hope with a message of homicidal hatred.

Like a magician walking across broken glass while trying not to bleed, we are left with trying to figure out how to tread the shattered pieces. Some want to get political. Others play the blame game. And some scream an eye for an eye. But it is those who were the most directly involved that have shown us a better way. During the killer’s bond hearing, members of Emanuel AME Church stood to tell the young man what he had taken from them – fathers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and brothers. They reminded him of all that was left shattered in their world. But being people of faith, believing that God can make whole that which was left broken, they let grace glisten through the words of forgiveness.

The members of Emanuel AME Church have reminded us that God isn’t interested in saving a world in a way that is beyond us. God heals people through people. We are once again reminded that God’s grace is so real that you can touch it, smell it, taste it, and even attempt to kill it, but you cannot stop it. When the Church starts being the Church, as the faithful in Charleston have shown us, God’s grace can give us the strength to walk across the broken glass of racism and prejudice.

As followers of Jesus, we have been shown how to love in a fragile world. The final night before his life was left broken on a cross, Jesus gathers his disciples in an upper room. Up till this moment, for three years, they had been walking the streets of a shattered world teaching, healing, and showing a better way. Their feet dirty and cracked from the journey. Jesus takes off an outer garment, gets down on his knees, and one by one, goes around and washes their feet. In response he says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). In a fragmented world we are not to add to the broken pieces by throwing down more hatred and violence. Instead we are called to love. The one left broken on a cross, encourages us, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

We pray for our brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church. They will step lightly as they walk into their sanctuary on Sunday morning. They gather as a community that has travelled through life and death. They have taken a drink from the cup of suffering but they are preparing to feast on the eternal bread of life. They have entered into the depths of Christ suffering but, like all believers, they will wait with a joyous expectation because they know that resurrection is on the horizon. We have been reminded that we live in a shattered world. However, within the reflection of the broken we see a glimpse of God’s redeeming love.

As you make your way through this life take time to pick up the broken pieces. Show grace. Offer forgiveness. Be careful not to leave the path littered with hate. Love makes the way easier to tread. It minimizes the bleeding. Continue to love in Jesus’ name because we have been shown that love conquers all.

Easter: The End Becomes the Beginning

heisrisenA few summer’s ago, we were eating yogurt at a local shop and my youngest son’s kindergarten teacher comes strolling in the door. We all had to do a double-take. This sweet teacher of kindergarteners was wearing leather chaps and carrying a motorcycle helmet. She and her husband were out enjoying a ride in the beautiful weather. For my son, it was just too much to absorb. He couldn’t believe it. It was a bizarre thing to see his teacher out of the context of her classroom. Throw in the motorcycle wearing gear and it was a lot for him to take in on that day. She was out of his element.

Mary and Mary and Salome go to the tomb to anoint the body of a dead Jesus. What they got was a Jesus out of context. He was out of place. He supposed to be dead. Imagine showing up at a funeral and the director of the funeral home meets you outside and says, “You are not going to believe this but he isn’t dead. He got up this morning and wanted me to tell you to meet him down the street.” Talk about showing up expecting one thing and getting something else. How do you react to such news? How do you respond? We can’t be too hard on the ladies for being afraid. After all, they went expecting a dead Jesus. A Jesus sealed behind a rock. They were going to anoint his dead, decaying body with oil and spices. Their biggest concern was who was going to roll back the stone. Who was going to get that big rock out of their way so they could get into the tomb? Instead the stone has been rolled away. Jesus is risen. Jesus is out of context.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)

A mysterious young man greets the women at the tomb. They are told to go tell Jesus’ other followers that Jesus is not dead. He is not in the tomb. He is risen. The women leave. If you are on a death journey and what you find is life, you might be a little out of sorts as well. You show up at the funeral home hoping that the flower shop got the flowers correct and delivered on time and the funeral director greets you saying, “You can take your flowers and go home because he isn’t here. He has already made his way back home.” I got to admit I’d be a little afraid as well.

The context has changed. Death no longer has the last word. The enemy has been destroyed. God has come to redeem. God is going to take what looks like bad endings and turn them into new beginnings. God is going to take what looks like failures and giving them back as opportunities. When Jesus is risen the context changes. The end becomes the beginning. Life, not death, has the final word.

Happy Easter. He is Risen!

We Have a Friend in Jesus (Good Friday Meditation)

good friday 2A few years ago a volunteer at a hospital told of meeting a little girl who was suffering from a life-threatening disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had somehow survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness.

The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.”

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”

Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

When it comes to family most of us would do what it took to save a life. There is no barrier that we would not cross to ensure the safety of those we love. There is no mountain we would not climb for those we care about. What is true of family can also be the case for friends.

Jesus understood this. He says, “Greater love has no one than this; that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). True friendship is life-giving. It is life-sacrificing. True friendship is willing to be wounded for the sake of the other.

Jesus was a friend of sinners. Jesus loves even when he is not loved back. He is a savior that chases after us even as we run away. A friend who ask nothing in return and yet, is willing to give all for our love. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because of whom he chose to call friend (Matt. 11:19). When Judas, the betrayer, shows up with a legion of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he responds, “My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for” (Matt. 26:50). The one who betrays, Jesus calls friend.

Jesus lays down his life for his friends. He bears the sins of his friends. Toward the end of his life, he says to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). The cross is his claim that he has not given up on his friends. It is on the cross that Jesus befriends humanity. On the cross, we have been shown the heart of God, so that our hearts can be won. On the cross, Jesus dies a friend of sinners, so that we may become a friend of God. On the cross, God battles for those he longs to call friend.

If you are lonely and dejected, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are battered and beaten, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are rejected and ashamed, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are suffering and in pain, you have a friend in Jesus. On this day, the day we call good, we discover we have a friend in Jesus.

Palm Sunday: Beyond Our Expectations

Palm Sunday 2I once knew a guy. A guy who always made excuses for not coming to worship. His biggest excuse was that it interfered with his fishing. So, I decided to start praying for him. I prayed, “Lord, make his fishing trips horrible. If he catches anything, let it be so small that there is no way possible for him to brag. Lord, put a crack in his johnboat. Not a big crack where it sinks, just one small enough where he notices. Lord, make it rain on the lake but just on the lake because it is hard to get anyone to church when it rains. In Jesus name, Amen.” One day about a month after I started my prayers I ran into him. I asked him about his fishing. He said, “Preacher, you won’t believe it. I have caught some of the biggest fish of my life and have had some of the most beautiful mornings out on the lake. My fishing has never been better.” On my way out I just gave the Lord the look. ”He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

On Palm Sunday they wanted to make him king but by Friday they were ready to kill him. His teaching of peace and turning the other cheek was more than they could handle. His talk of forgiving ones enemies made them want to puke. His talk of grace and forgiveness was just too much to handle. They wanted a destroyer. They got a redeemer. They wanted a warrior. They got a savior.

God just doesn’t do things like we do. Jesus disappoints. We want a hero and we get a suffering servant. We want a warrior to swoop down and destroy all our enemies and Jesus teaches us how to love our enemies. We want Jesus to be supportive of our middle class morality and he says stuff like “blessed are the weak and the poor for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” He simply refuses to be forced into our mold. He does not allow us to use him to support our own way of thinking of what we need in a savior. Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

It is the Sunday before Easter, the Son of God is to be handed over, betrayed, abused, and murdered. As he rides toward Jerusalem, the host of heaven hold their breath to see how this turns out. The angels watch with anticipation as the start of Holy Week begins. The disciples are confused. The crowd gives a shallow praise. This is the calm before the storm. Jesus rides up to the gate of the city. Once he enters there is no turning back. There is no back tracking. This is the moment. If you pay attention, if you look closely, you will notice his eyes are on you. His hand is extended towards you. He is inviting you to enter this final week with him. Will you go? Will you let go of your expectations and walk with him the way of salvation? Before you say, “Yes,” take a deep breath, hold on to the hope of resurrection, and let go of all your expectations. Let Jesus show you the way toward a resurrection beyond your wildest expectations.

(Mark 11: 1 – 11)

My Father Owns the Mountain

God providesI heard a story of two teens who arrived at summer camp at the same time. They were forced to share bunks. One girl was a brat who introduced herself by saying, “Hey, there. I come here every summer because my daddy owns part of this property. Do you see that speedboat on the lake? My daddy owns that boat. Do you see that mansion on the side of the mountain? My daddy stays there when he comes to visit me.”

Looking at the other camper, she asks in a condescending tone, “So, who’s your daddy?”

She smiled and lifted her dejected head. With a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Do you see that large lake that your daddy’s boat is in? My Father created that lake. And you know that mountain your daddy’s cabin is on? My Father owns that mountain.”

By focusing on the provision, we can become like the bratty girl and forget the One who provides. We can come to love the provision more than the provider. The safety becomes more important than the obedience. The comfort sounds better than the responsibility.

Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, was led to a ravine after foretelling a drought that would devastate the land. At the ravine, God promised to provide for the prophet. In the morning and in the evening, ravens would bring him meat and bread. The small ravine would provide him with water. One day, the ravine dried up. No more water.

If we find ourselves in life where it seems all is dried up, it is easy to feel resentful, abandoned, or no longer loved. This is especially true if our focus has been on the provision and not the Provider.  It is in those dry places that we must be “persuaded that God has power to do what God has promised” (Romans 4:21). It is worth remembering that sometimes God guides by what God does not provide. It does not mean that God is not taking care of us. It just means the creek has dried up and it is time to move on. In those seasons of our life, we must trust in Jesus who promises “If you are thirsty, come to me and drink! Have faith in me, and you will have life-giving water flowing from deep inside you” (John 7:37-38). 

The Making of Beautiful Things (Ash Wednesday)

ash wednesday picWhen I was a kid my grandmother’s house was struck by lighting. It went up in flames. It was completely destroyed. Clothes, furniture, and memories left in ashes. I remember standing in the front yard watching as the last embers faded and the adults savaged through the rubble digging for anything worth saving. Every time I get a scent of a fire my mind rushes back to that moment. The moment when it looked that all was lost.

Ashes are what are left after destruction. After chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain. When the character Job of the Old Testament loses everything – his home, his family – he sits among the ashes. When the psalmist is being overtaken by his enemies, he declares, “I eat ashes like bread, and mingle my tears with my drink” (Psalm 102:9). The prophet Jeremiah tells the people to “roll in ashes” because the destroyer is on their doorstep (Jeremiah 6:26). Ashes are what are left when all is gone.

Everyone has ashes. Everyone has something that has fallen apart. Cars breakdown. Paint flakes off. Skin wrinkles. Hearts fail. We all have something that has turned or is turning into ashes. Hopes and dreams left in rubble. Jobs are lost. Homes are foreclosed. Relationships are broken apart. There it all lays – our sins, our failures, our disappointments – in a pile of ashes. What does your pile look like today?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lent Season. This is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which is a season of preparation for Easter celebration. Early on it had become the custom of ancient Christians to have a season of spiritual readiness before the Easter celebration. It was during this season that converts to the faith were prepared for baptism. It was also a time for those who had wandered away from the faith to be received back into the community through repentance and forgiveness. The season of Lent invites us to renew our faith and live in the mercy and forgiveness that is found in Jesus Christ. We look forward to resurrection. It is a time of year that prepares us for new life.

Ashes are seen by many as the end. But in the church we see them as the beginning. They begin a season that moves us through reflection and repentance into joy and resurrection. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent where we are being invited to turn back to God, to be reconciled with one another, and to live in peace. We are invited to see the ashes as the beginning of new life. We believe beautiful things can truly come out of the ashes.

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed in the good news of God’s arrival, “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3). It is through the ashes that we will be called, “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Isaiah 61:3).

The Apostle Paul tells that in Christ, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17)! The whole world is being made new by the cross and resurrection. Because of what God is doing through Christ Jesus, there is the possibility of reconciliation with all that is broken. Because of new creation, we are made to be agents of reconciliation. We are called to speak hope to the hopeless, joy to the brokenhearted, and life into death. The cross on the forehead reminds us that we have been reconciled unto God through Christ. The mark of the cross sets us a part as ambassadors of reconciliation.

Where in the midst of ashes is God calling you to speak a word of life? Where in the midst of destruction is God calling you to be an agent of change? Where among the ashes of sin, brokenness, and death is God calling you to announce, “Now is the time to lay down your weapons of hatred, hurt, and anger. Now is the time to turn back to God. Today is your salvation day!”

Today we may begin our Lent journey toward new life by sitting among ashes but when we trust in God we can be assured that even in this place resurrection can happen. God really can make beautiful things out of the ashes.

Epic Story Epic Author: The Torah

Epic Story Epic Author“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” Exodus 13:14-16

My children enjoy watching old video recordings of when they were younger. They like to take those trips down memory lane. So, we pop some popcorn and gather around the television to re-live the past. We watch summer vacations, holidays, and birthday events. It is peculiar how fast we change and grow. It is even funnier how some things you remember and others you forget.

All of us have selective memories. Selective memory is the act of remembering certain things based on our feelings. Our selective memory remembers things and forgets things based on either positive or negative emotions. Some of us have a selective memory that remembers only good things and forgets bad things. Your selective memory blocks out all the negative stuff. The things that you find that are to painful or to shameful are blocked out of your memory.

On the other hand, some of us have selective memory by forgetting the good things and remembering only the bad. We choose to live in negativity and never see anything to be grateful for. We use our selective memory to dwell only on the painful, the shattered dreams, and broken hopes.

What memories do you recall this past year? Are they all negative? Or do you remember moments of God’s redemption? What do you remember? Do you remember the hand of God at work in your life?

As the Jewish people set out for their journey towards the Promised Land, they are told to remember. Remember this day, God tells the people. Remember it is on this day that I called you out. When you are in the land of the free and enjoy the flowing of milk and honey, remember this day. When you are establishing your homes, raising your children, making your money, remember this day. When you are in the desert and you don’t think you will survive, remember this day. When the task before you seems impossible, remember this day. Remember this is the day that I came to your rescue, says the Lord. Remember this is the day I brought you out of slavery. Remember this is the day that seemed like the last day but I turned it around and made it the day of new beginnings. Remember this day, the day I called you out, says the Lord. Remember this day.

When in the future your children ask what all this means, you tell them this is about the day that God came to our rescue. The God of the heavens emerged as the one who intervened on behalf of the nobodies. We were slaves in Egypt and we are alive because God came to our rescue. We remember this day because without this day there would be no other days.

Throughout the first five books of the Scripture the word “remember” carries significance. As the Hebrews move closer to the Promised Land they are told to remember where God brought them from. When they transition from being traveling people to people of the land, they are told not to forget who they were. When they celebrate their holidays and reenact the Exodus, they are to tell the children their story. Although God does not change, circumstances around us change all the time. For that reason, God encourages the people to remember.

Change is easier when we remember who we once were and who it is calling us to change. It is easier to adapt to new circumstances when we remember who it is calling us out to change. Remembering where we came from is a great motivator to change. It is when we choose not to remember that we get stuck in our ways and become people who complain of the changes around us.

In a changing world everyone needs to be able to retell who they are in confidence. In Deuteronomy 31 God tells Moses, “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people – men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns – so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess” (31: 11-13). The Torah, the first five books of the bible, is Israel’s refusal to live in disorder.  In the Torah children learn the truth of who they are, where they came from, and with that information, where they are headed. As Walter Brueggemann says, “The Torah is a line drawn in the sand against darkness and disorder. It is a line drawn against chaos and death. The story of Israel found in the Torah is told by adults who are confident in its truth.” In an ever-changing world, the Torah stands as the stable influence.

The Torah teaches that when we speak of God it must always be contextual. We might talk about how this God created the heavens and the earth as some cosmic reality. But we can’t leave this God up in the heavens. In the cool of the evening, God came to walk among His creation. God’s relationship is dynamic. It is ever-changing as the people move through history. This one we call God is relational. He is always revealing, loves surprises, and keeps initiating relationships. The working out of God’s purpose is discovered in these pages. The ultimate meaning of life is found in this historical experience of God naming, calling out, and promising to be with these people. These stories are necessary because in retelling them we remember. We remember the graciousness of God. We remember that life is truly a gift.

The reading of the Torah and all of scripture is a reminder that God continues to remember. He remembered his people and at the right time sent Jesus to be the hope of their salvation. God came in Jesus Christ and through his cross, His suffering and death, paid the price for our sin, so that we can go ahead and remember it, we can confess it, we can lay it before him.