Sunday, May 31, 2020

How Can the Church Bring Order out of the Chaos and Pain of These Days? Here's How

Okay, I’m going to say it.   I am not looking all that forward to getting back to live and in person worship, what some folks call reopening.   Of course, calling it reopening doesn’t make any sense.  Churches never ever closed.  One little meme someone shared with me put it this way.  The Devil was talking to God and saying.  “Hooray, I closed all the churches.”   But God replied. “What are you talking about?  I just planted millions of new ones in homes everywhere.”  

But still, I’m not looking forward to getting back to this whole in person worship deal.    Part of it, is purely selfish.   Beyond my hourly Sunday zoom visit, I’ve had Sundays free for the first time in Gosh, I think ever.  I gotta admit.  That’s been nice.  Also, I’m a little nervous about the new technology, getting this streaming business right.  

But those aren’t the biggest reasons.  No, I don’t look forward to it, because it won’t be worship like I’ve seen it before.  People will be scattered and in masks.  We’ll all be a little nervous, afraid of passing on the virus to someone we love.   After all, one out of three of the folks that catch this virus never show a symptom.  So, you could be throwing off virus and not even know it.  The last thing I want is to find out one of our worship gatherings got someone sick.   And of course, for exactly those reasons, many will be choosing to stay home and watch virtually.

And all of that makes me a little sad.  Have you already been feeling some of that grief?  Have you grieved a bit about what we have lost, at least temporarily, not just with worship but with so much else?  My family was heading recently to Mimi’s Ravioli for some needed supplies.  Thanks goodness, the government sees good pasta as an essential service!   As we passed by the Hard Rock Hotel, I remembered a recent outing there with my wife’s aunt Carol.  We took her out to the buffet and then watched the light show with hundreds of others.  And I wondered how long it would be before something like that would even be possible again. 

Still, even with the risks, even with the masks and social distancing, even with that sense of sadness, these small steps forward to regathering in person matter.  And in words you’re about to hear, God tell you why.   For in these words, God reminds you why our community, our nation, our world needs this strange thing called the church more than ever.  In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.              

Why does church matter?  In these words, God tells you.   Churches, when they’ve living in the flow of God’s Spirit, breathe life out into the world.  No, they do more than that.  Churches breathe in too.  They breathe in the pain and heartache.  And they breathe out the love and grace.  

That’s what the Spirit did for those first disciples on this day we call Pentecost.  Those disciples were living in fear.  Jesus had gone, and they had no idea what the future held.   And so, they were doing the last thing Jesus told them to do.  They were waiting.  That’s what Jesus told them to do, to just 
wait.  So, they did.   

In these days, we’ve had to do a lot of waiting, waiting for the curve to flatten, waiting for more direction on how best to stay safe.  And we’re still waiting.  We’re waiting for a vaccine.  We’re waiting for more steps towards the new normal.   And I get it.  Waiting can be frustrating.  But let’s not forget that the church began out of waiting.   Someone put it well when they said this: Joseph waited fifteen years.  Abraham waited twenty-five years.  Moses waited forty years, and Jesus waited thirty years.  So, if you’re waiting, you’re in very good company. As we wait out these days, let’s not forget that God and waiting often go together. 

And when these disciples waited, God moved.   God’s spirit came.   And it came as wind, or at least something close to that.   The Bible describes it as a sound like the rush of a mighty wind.  And that wind did something.  It took in all the disciples’ fear and apprehension, and it replaced it. It replaced it with boldness, with power, with a passion to share God’s love like never before.   And that’s where we picked up the end of the story, right as that message hit home and changed the lives of 3,000 people.

But do you get how that change happened?  It happened through air, through breath.  It came through words, sounds, yes.  But how do you make sound.   Air does it.  You breathe in air. That air flows out and vibrates your vocal cords, and sounds come out.

And in scripture, from the very beginning, air has a sort of starring role.  Even before God makes anything, a mighty wind from God shows up right in the first verses of Genesis.    But of course, this mighty wind isn’t just any wind.  It’s the same wind that you see here.  It’s the Spirit of God, that mighty wind, getting ready to bring, out of chaos, order and beauty and life.   And again, words follow that wind from God, the very words in which God speaks creation into being.    

And is it any wonder that same wind creates the church, that it fills them with the very words from God that speak the church into being.  And as you see how God created the church, God is telling you what God is calling this church to do.  God is calling that church to continue the Spirit’s work.  God is calling it to bring beauty and order and peace out of a world of chaos and emptiness.  

Over the last weeks, I have been reading a book by the Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron. And in that book, she shares a particular Buddhist practice calledTonglen.   It’s a fairly simple practice. 

Basically, you breathe in bad stuff, and you breathe out good.   Let’s say you’re feeling some anxiety and impatience in these days of Covid 19.   Well, you take all that anxiety and impatience into you, but not just your anxiety and impatience.  No, you breathe it in for all those who are feeling that same sort of anxiety and impatience.   And then you breathe out relief.  You breathe out peace and rest for all those caught in that place.  And go figure, when you do that, it works.  

And you can do this for anything for those suffering injustice; for those struggling with this illness, for any pain or heartbreak in the world.   And in every case, you take that pain in, and you breathe out healing and restoration and love.    You can think of it as a sort of Buddhist intercessory prayer, though I doubt a Buddhist would ever put it that way.     

But the more I thought of it, and even practiced it a bit, I realized.   That’s who God calls the church to be, to be a sort of Tonglen for the world, breathing in pain and heartache and all sorts of human brokenness. And breathing out God’s love and grace and peace. 

That has certainly been what the church has done for me.  I remember growing up as an insecure teenager, unattractive and geeky.   At school, I could never really find my place.  But at church, I found a community that loved me in all my awkwardness and fear.   That community breathed in all my insecurity, and it breathed out welcome and love and acceptance.   And it changed my life.

And at some point, I imagine God used the church to do something like that for you too.  Now no church is perfect.  And at times the church can take in the bad stuff and breathe it right back out.   But when the Spirit is flowing, oh, what the church can do.  It can take in brokenness and pain and breathe out healing and comfort.  It can take in anxiety and fear, and breath out peace and joy.  It can take in exclusion and isolation and breathe out welcome and love.

And in this world, where people seem more and more divided and disconnected, we need that more than ever.  For we live in a nation and world, not only sick in body, but profoundly sick in soul.   And God has placed his spirit in us to help bring healing to all that brokenness and pain. 

And of course, you don’t need a building to do any of that.  In fact, for the first 300 years, Christians had no buildings and we did just fine.  That’s why I don’t get it when folks talk about churches being closed down. I know of hardly any churches that have.  Sure, their buildings have been closed.  But when has the church ever been a building?   Now we get confused and talk about it that way.  We talk about going to church as if the church is a place you go. 

But church is more like family.   And yes, you may go to family, but that doesn’t mean family has to be any special place. Due to the pandemic I’ll miss joining my extended family in North Carolina at our annual family reunion this year.  But what makes the family reunion isn’t that place in North Carolina.  It could happen anywhere.  What makes it is the people.   Still those people gotta have some place to gather.  That’s why I’m glad we’ll be reopening.  It’ll give us a place to start the gathering once again.

But remember even as we gather, church happens mostly out there.  It happens as we let the Spirit flow through us, as in our own ways, we breathe in the brokenness of the world, and breathe out God’s love and grace.   For isn’t that what Jesus did for us?   With his last breaths, he breathed in all our darkness and chaos and murderous fearful ways.   He took all that in. And he has breathed out on us his salvation, his life, his new creation in us.   And he is still doing it now. 

So, let’s join in on that work.  In whatever ways God leads you, breathe in the pain and breathe out the love.   Let God use you for the healing of your neighbors, your friends, your family members, everyone you meet.   And as you do so, day by day, the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved.    And in those simple yet profoundly powerful ways, God’s Spirit will work, bringing healing to our communities, to our nation, to our world.    

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Can Knowing the End of the Story Change Your Story Now? It Can. And Here's How

Has it begun to hit home with you yet, that these challenging days could be going on a lot longer than anyone likes?    Sure, things will reopen. But, even then, everyone will be using their trusty masks for quite a while.   Lots of folks will still be out of work for a good stretch and that’s going to be hard.  Businesses we know and love might not be able to make it.   And let’s not even talk about a second wave of this thing in the Fall.   

Ok, you might be thinking.  I come here for you to encourage me not depress me.  But I bring those things up just to set the scene.   All of those things I just shared could very well be true.  In fact, let’s be honest, they’re quite likely to be true in the coming days.  And because of that likely reality what we’ll be celebrating in the next few minutes has more importance than ever. 

When the days get dark, you need to celebrate more not less.  And why?  It reminds you that the dark will never be the end of the story.  The light will be.  But on certain days during these challenging times, it can be hard to see that light.  But here in these words, for when the light gets hard to see, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

In these words, God is giving you the end of the story, and not just any story. God is giving you the end of the whole story, humanity, the universe, the entire shooting match.   When it’s all over, God is saying, here’s what happens.  I win.   Love wins over hate.  Life wins over death.  Good wins over evil.  Joy wins over despair.   And when you know how it ends that changes everything.   It gives you a power right now to live your life that nothing can shake.  

Heck, that’s why God shared these words in the first place.  Christians faced a dangerous world, one becoming terrifyingly hostile to them.   And over the next two centuries after this vision was shared, they would live at the mercy of a world that veered from bare toleration of their existence to campaigns to wipe them out completely.   Yet in the midst of that, what happened?   Followers of Jesus grew into the millions, until their presence transformed the Roman empire.   They changed a cruel and brutal culture, into one that began to care for the most vulnerable.   Where did hospitals and orphanages come from?  Christians created them.  Before Christianity, they didn’t exist.  And what enabled the revolution to happen?  The Christians had this.  They knew the end of the story.   And, knowing that future it gave them the power to change their present.   

Think about it.   When you know your future, it doesn’t simply affect you in the future, it affects you right now.   Imagine this. Two people get a job, some mundane job like fitting widgets into wodgets.  But one person gets told that in one year, he’ll get a raise from 20 grand a year to 25, but the other gets told that in one year, he’ll get a raise from 20 grand a year to 20 million.  Who do you think is going to come to work every day with more enthusiasm, the 25 grand guy or the 20 million one?   But get this.  They are both experiencing the same circumstances.  But they are experiencing those same circumstances in two very different ways.   Why?   Because, what both believe about their future is changing the way they live their lives right now.  
And that’s why Christians celebrating communion in these days has such power.  You see.  At that table, you are not just celebrating what God did for you in Jesus.   No, you are reminding yourself of the end of the story, of what is still to come.  

When I was growing up, I had a pretty dreary idea of what taking communion was all about.  I thought it meant feeling bad that Jesus gave up his life to save me.  But I was missing the whole point.   When you give someone a gift, do you want them to feel bad?   I hope not.  No, you want them to feel good, to be touched and moved, to feel valued and loved.   And at this table, God yearns for you too experience all those things and more.  But this table goes even beyond that. At this table God is getting you ready for what is to come. 

This week, I was listening in on a conversation with a preacher I admire.  He was talking how lots of folks have what he called a Looney Tunes version of the soul.  Do you know what he means?  Have you ever seen in those old cartoons how when a character dies, a little ghost sort of floats out of the body?  But in the Bible, the soul isn’t that at all. It’s all that you are, your mind, your body, everything.   And if anything, these weeks apart have showed the truth of that.  Yes, you see folks on a screen.  You may even see and talk to them in real time.  But it doesn’t satisfy at all.  Why?  They are not all there.  Virtual can never be the same as the real ever.   

And that’s why we yearn for a day, when we can be together, really together, not just virtually but really.   And that’s why God came in Jesus, not as some spirit, but as a body, a real flesh and blood person.   And that’s why in the end all of us, bodies and all, will be together in a way more wondrous, more beautiful than we could ever imagine.

Think about the most joyous moments you’ve had in love.  Think about a great party, an amazing meal, a piece of music that rocked your world, the joy you felt.  Think about the wonder of a stunning waterfall, or a breathtaking mountain or the sea, the joy that gave you.  In what is to come, you will experience THE waterfalls of which all other waterfalls are just hints and echoes.  You will experience THE party of all parties, THE song of all songs, THE family of all families, THE joy of all joys.   And when you know that, it doesn’t just give you hope and joy in the future.  It gives you joy and hope right now. 

It’s why the Bible calls this feast at the end, a marriage feast.  When my wife and I were planning our wedding, I experienced joy just anticipating that day, imagining all the friends and family gathered there, seeing my beloved walk down the aisle, dancing with her for the first time as my wife.   And at times when things got a little tough, looking to that day, to all that joy to come, it even held us together.

So, coming to the table of communion, celebrating at this table, especially in these challenging days reminds us.  This virus will not be the end of our story.  Christians will celebrate this mean virtually now, but at some point, we'll celebrate it in person once again. And on that day when Christians gather, they will be looking to an even greater day, to the party of all parties, the feast of all feasts, a time when we will gather under trees whose leaves heal the nations, in a place where God wipes away every tear.  And when you know that, when you know what’s coming, well, it changes everything not just in the future but right now.  So, find a church sharing communion and celebrate at that table.  And as you do, don’t just remember what God has done or even just celebrate what God is doing now.  But look with joy, with excitement, for the best, for the best is still to come.                   

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What Does a Tree Stump Have to Tell You About Hope in These Days? A Lot and Here's Why.

Every weekday, I dread it’s coming.  I see it rising up ahead.   No matter what I do, I cannot get past it.   And when I hit it, it stops me dead in my tracks.   Until it passes, I have no other choice but to wait.   And the agony of it all, the struggle, the frustration.

I know I’m not alone.  Other surely face these challenges, including all those who face with me this exasperating place.   If you don’t face my particular place, you likely face one much like it.   Have you ever faced a red light that seems to never turn green?   Oh yes, all the other cars are going, but not you.   No, you wait and wait and wait.   This week I even timed my red light.   Every weekday I have to wait at that light for at least two whole minutes!

Now, I’m being a little tongue in cheek here.  But I’m also being honest.  I hate to wait.  And these days require a lot of waiting, waiting to see what the virus does, waiting to find out when we can reopen, waiting for the day, whenever it will be, when things get back to some semblance of normal.   And as I wait, I realize, I have a lot to be grateful for.  I’m not sick or in a hospital or caring for anyone who is sick.   I’m not facing as deep a financial crisis as many others are.  I’m not grieving the loss of a loved one gone far too early.   I can’t imagine how painful the waiting through those challenges and losses must be. 

But here’s the truth, all of us, in one way or another are waiting.  And waiting can be hard, and for a number of us, even terrifyingly hard.   And in the waiting, it can be all too easy to fear the worst, to wonder when we will come out, to even begin to wonder if we will.   And when those moments come, God points the way, the way to comfort and strength, the way to patience and hope, the way to a day when these challenging days will end.   And how do you find that way?  In those words, God tells you.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Heck, this virus has messed everything up.  It messed Easter up.  It is messing with restaurants, theatres, even Disney World.   And worst of all, it is messing up the lives of thousands, even millions of people in awful, heart-breaking ways.   You read the stories of those who have lost their lives.  Or maybe you know it more closely than that.  You know a friend or family member that died or who is battling the virus right now.   And in the midst of it all, who doesn’t yearn for it all to stop?    Who doesn’t say to themselves?  Enough already. 

Yet, in one way or another, it seems that this virus will be hanging around a bit longer.   And as everyone waits for some good news, some signs of hope, some light at the end of this all too long tunnel, you can get discouraged.  You can begin to wonder.  How will we make it back?  How will things be different when we do?  Yet in these words, and not only these words, God gives us the perspective we all need.  God tells you.  Life always wins over death, always.   But you need to have the patience to wait for the life to come. 

In the days, that the prophet Isaiah shared these words, things did not look good at all.  The people of Israel had literally lost their country.  They weren’t even living there.  The empire that conquered them had exiled them to their capital city, Babylon.   And none of them had any idea if they would ever get to return, if they would ever have a nation again.   Yet in the middle of this awful moment, the prophet Isaiah writes these words.  

He faces the reality of what they face, how they thirst for hope, and yet seem to find none.  But then he says this.   This thirst, this dryness will not be the end of your story.  No, the waters will flow again.  Even in the mountains where water can be scarce, the water will flow.    Even the desert will have pools of water.  And then he gets to the climax.  He talks about the trees, and not just any trees, the trees that everyone loved.   He talks about the olive tree and the cypress and the pine, a hit list of the best trees of Israel.   He says.  God will place those trees everywhere, even in the desert, so everyone will know God did this, no one else.

Yet, get this, in sharing this vision, he is talking about a place thousands of miles away, a place that it looks like they’ll never ever get back to.   Is he delusional?  It can seem like it.  Until you realize, they did get back there.   It took a while, but they got back.  

And so, God is telling them, this exile, this loss will not be the last word.  God is saying.  My love, my faithfulness, my life-giving abundance will be that last word.   This too shall pass.  In fact, that word pass reminds me of one of my favorite preacher jokes.   It goes like this.

A preacher once asked an old farmer in his church, his favorite verse.  The farmer replied immediately.  Well, preacher, my favorite verse has always been.  “It came to pass.”   The preacher puzzled asks.  “Why that one?”  And the farmer replies, as if it was obvious.  “The Lord said it didn’t come to stay.   He said. It came to pass.”  

And as strange as it may sound, this too will pass.   But it won’t pass tomorrow. It won’t pass on any timetable we set.  But it will pass.   And that’s the problem, human beings get impatient.  We want things to change quickly, whether it be red lights or viruses.   And when they don’t, we get impatient.  We get discouraged.  We lose perspective.   But in these words that you just heard God gives you the perspective you need to have.   You need the perspective of the myrtle and of the olive and of the cedar.  You need the perspective of trees. 

You see.   Trees live a long time, as long as 5,000 years.   That means. Trees have perspective.  Tees are willing to wait.   In some deep way, they know, if you wait, life come.   They know even life comes in the worst that the world throws at you.  That’s why I put up on the screen, the picture of this stump.  Do you see what is growing out of it?   It’s a little tree.   You can cut a tree down, and it will still live.   Trees know. Life will always win out if you’re willing to wait. 

In fact, one tree did that for two thousand years.   In the early 60s archeologists were excavating the great fortress of Masada in Southern Israel.  That fortress lies a thousand feet above the Judean desert, as barren a place as you can imagine.     And there they found a jar containing date seeds.  They did some carbon dating and discovered they were about two thousand years old.  Then they stuck them in a drawer and forget them for about 40 years.  Then someone had a crazy idea.   “Why don’t we plant them?”   

So, they did.  And go figure, with a little help, the seeds sprouted.  The palm not only grew, it  became a daddy.  It pollinated a female date palm, and now they have date palm children.  They call the tree Methesulah, who was the oldest man in the Bible.  Here’s a picture of Methesulah.
  As of February, he’s grown to be about 12 feet tall.  Don’t you get it, God is a god of life.  And life always win, if you are willing to wait. 

And you don’t need to go back two thousand years to realize that.  You can go back to thelast time something like this happened, 1918.   That’s the year a flu pandemic hit the world.  It killed at least 50 million.  That’s 5 out of every 100 people on the entire planet at that time.  But it gets worse.    Let me just paint the picture. 

Before that flu happened, things had been going bad already.   When World War I erupted in 1914, it messed up the economy so bad, the stock market closed for four months.   And then in early 1918, our nation got in the war, and then the pandemic hit.  In fact, the war helped spread it.  It likely began in a military camp in Kansas, and when the soldiers left to fight, they carried the flu with them.   And that flu, when it got really bad, in a space of six months, killed 30 million people.  And it didn’t kill old people.  It killed the young those in their 20s and 30s.     

And then after that pandemic ended, our nation went into a huge recession followed by a depression.   Over three years, our economy shrunk by almost 40%.  And the government made things worse.  It didn’t raise spending.  It cut it by 20%.    And the Federal Reserve didn’t cut interest rates.   It raised them.   And on top of that the Ku Klux Klan rose up and caused hundreds of thousands of African Americans to flee North. 

Yet in the next five years after all of that, what happened?  The mass-produced automobile happened.  The airplane happened, as did the radio, the assembly line, the refrigerator, the electric razor, the washing machine, the jukebox, the television, and I could go on.  The stock market went up 500%!  America entered the Roaring 20s, one of the most vibrant, dynamic decades in our history.  And when those blacks fled north, many ended up in Harlem.  And there they created the Harlem Renaissance, that created some of the greatest music and literature in our history.  Now it wasn’t perfect.   It did end with a big crash.  But holy smokes.  Don’t you get it?

Life came back from a war, a pandemic, a recession, a depression.  It took time. But it came back.  Because life always, always wins, if you are willing to wait. 

And thank God, that God is willing to wait.  God has the patience, after all, to wait on us.  For, why did Israel end up in exile?   It ended there because again and again, they refused to listen to God, to care for the poor and needy.  Yet God never gave up on them.  God promised them that life would return, that his love would never leave.

And sadly, in the years 1918 and before, much of that death and heartbreak came because of terrible decisions that people made.  Yet even there, life found a way even in the midst of death.  Doctors and nurses gave their lives to care for those sick.   Deeds of mercy and courage occurred even in the midst of a senseless war.  And people of faith found ways to move forward in hope even in the darkest of those days. 

And they found that hope because they followed a God who knew his way out of the grave. They found that hope because they had experienced the love of a God who in Jesus went to death and beyond.  They found that hope in a Savior who even as we killed him prayed for us, even forgave us.   They found that hope in a God who never, ever gives up on us, who never leaves us even when we leave him.  For with God, his love always has the last word.  His love is always a word of life, a word of hope, a hope that nothing, not even death defeats.   So, in these days, live in that hope.  If God can create a tree that can grow and have tree babies after 2000 years, if God can give his life and defeat death for us as he does it, then God will bring us through these days.   It may not happen on our timetable, but it will happen.     God will bring life out of this crisis.  God always does.   So, until that day comes, live with the perspective of trees.  Wait and hope.  Love and care.  Serve and work.  And trust in this God whose way always leads to life, even in these days.   

Monday, April 20, 2020

How Do you Find Peace and Joy in These Challenging Days? Believe it or Not, Trees Point the Way

To be honest, I’m kinda surprised.   Every day, Monday through Friday, I broadcast on Facebook Live, a walk on the labyrinth right behind our sanctuary.  And go figure, folks actually watch it.  In fact, way more folks watch those walks than watch this worship, sometimes 3 or even one time, 10 times as many.   I don’t know.  Maybe that has to do with the fact they only have to hear me talk there for about six minutes!  

And if you’ve been one of those folks that watch those walks, you’ll know when I get to the center of the labyrinth, I take a moment to look around.   And as I’ve done so, one thing I see in that look around always captures my attention.   And every time it does, just seeing it gives me a little bit of awe, along with a sense of comfort, even peace.  I think I notice it more now because I realize.  That thing I see each walk gets more attention in the Bible, after God and people, than any other living thing.  You’ll find it on the first page of the Bible and on the last page.  You’ll find it in the very first Psalm and the first page of the New Testament.   Every major event of the Bible has this living thing in some way connected to it. 

As cool as that is, this living thing shows up in all those places, because God knows it has power.  It has power to connect you more deeply to God, to each other, to the world around you.  It has power to even give you a profound sense of peace and hope and joy even in the worst of these days.   So, where can you find this living thing that has such power?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Have you guessed it?  Have you guessed what living thing carries such power that you find mentions of them everywhere in the Bible?  What I just read probably gives you a pretty good idea.   The living thing, beyond people, that gets more mention than anything else in the Bible is trees.   But now that you know that, so what?  

Sure, it gives you the right answer to a Bible trivia question.  But what does it do for you beyond that?   What does it matter that at the beginning of the whole story, the key choice that the first human beings face is choosing between two trees?   It matters a lot.  In fact, in that choice, you not only find the way to a life of peace and joy, of a life that is truly life.   In that choice, you find also what leads you away from that life.  You find what lies at the heart of the brokenness and pain of the human condition.     

But before you get to that choice, you need to first understand just why God focuses on trees in the first place.  Trees don’t just a central place in the Biblical story.    Trees have a central place in your story, in the whole story of this planet. 

Living on this planet, we take it for granted that stuff lives, from plants to bugs to our pets to us.  But as far as we know, all that living stuff, all of it exists nowhere else in the universe except here.  Sure, we guess something living must be out there.  But we haven’t found it.   We have found nothing else alive, not even something microscopic, anywhere else but this planet.   But on this planet, sheesh.  Life happens everywhere, even under our fingernails.   And in the Bible, when God wants to focus on the plants that lie at the center of all that life, God focuses on trees.  And that makes sense.

Right now, wherever you are, you are breathing trees.  Up until a few hundred years ago, no human being got that.  We had no idea where the stuff we breathe even came from.  One idea is it came from rocks.  People saw mist rising off the rocks and thought.  Oh, that’s where it comes from.  But if you talked to any scientist 300 years ago and said that trees were powering every moving thing on the planet, they might have laughed at you.  But go figure, it’s true.  In fact, you likely learned about that in elementary school.  But do you get what that means?   If every human being died tomorrow on this planet, trees wouldn’t be bothered a bit.   If every tree died on the planet tomorrow, every one of us would die soon after.  

So, when God talks about planting a tree of life, God isn’t just giving you a nice image.  God is telling you something profoundly true.   In fact, right inside you right now, you have a sort of tree.   Until recently, scientists weren’t able to really grasp what the inside of our lungs looked like.  But now we know.  This is what they look like.  
 Does that look like anything you’ve seen before?

And in this scripture, and in the wonders of these trees that surround us everywhere, God is telling you something absolutely, crucially important.   Everything is connected to everything else.   There is no such thing as independence anywhere, in nature, and even among us.

If we didn’t realize it before we sure realize it now.  This crisis has taught us just how interdependent we are.   Every day now we realize how many thousands of folks we depend upon to simply live, not just the folks who check us out at the grocery store or who deliver those groceries to our door.  We depend on the thousands growing it, picking it, packaging it, and then driving or flying all that stuff to us.  

And that’s where that other tree comes in, the tree that God warned Adam about.  What makes that tree so bad?   What’s wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil?

Years ago, two writers, JohnEldredge and Brent Curtis shared an insight that answered that very question.  Eldredge and Curtis wrote this: “Satan’s seduction of our heart always comes in the form of a story that offers us greater control through knowing good and evil rather than the unknowns of relationship.”  And why do we want that control?  Why do we want to know?  Well, because with relationship, it feels like you can’t really know.  Instead you have to trust, and trust can feel scary.

But in that tree and the command not to eat of it, God was asking the human beings exactly that question.  Do you trust me?  Do you trust me enough to believe what I tell you about the tree?   Are you willing to depend on me, on the wisdom I’m sharing with you, even if you don’t completely understand it?  

And these days, we’ve had to do a lot of trusting.  We’ve had to trust that when folks tell us we need to socially distance or wear masks or wash our hands we need to do that.  Now we may not completely understand all the reasons behind that.  But we simply trust that they’re telling us those things to save our lives, to save the lives of our loved ones, to save the lives of everyone.    And trust, more then you realize, holds everything together.  Trust holds marriages together. Trust holds families together. Trust holds nations together.  Now to a large extent, trust holds the whole world together.  But if you know the story, Adam and Eve didn’t trust.  They didn’t trust this God, God who had given them everything.   They wanted control.  They wanted to be the ones in charge. 

And this desire for control, this unwillingness to trust God or each other or even our very selves this lack of trust messes the world up all over the place.  And why do people not trust?  In the end, it comes down to fear.   Adam and Eve didn’t trust God because they feared.  They feared that God was holding out on them, that God didn’t want the best for them, that God didn’t really love them.  

And ever since, people have been caught up in that same fear. They have believed that same lie.   You can’t trust God.  You can’t trust anyone really.   But here’s the painful truth.   No can get away from trust.   You’re depending right now on the trees outside your window for the very air you breathe.   You’re literally living on that trust right now.  Every day, you trust countless things outside of your control just to keep you alive.

As scary as this coronavirus is, it can obscure the miracles of protection that happen every day inside your body.   Literally every day, your body kills off something that could harm or kill you and you don’t even know it.  Your antibodies along with other cells notice it, attack it, and get rid of it, and you’re none the wiser.  And fairly soon, at the most a year or two, with a little help from science, your antibodies will figure out this virus and protect you from it too.   But right now, those antibodies are already protecting you.  Every day, in countless ways, you live on trust.  And you can do that because the God who created this world is trustworthy.  You can trust, because this God does really love you. This God loves you more than you could ever imagine.   And you know that because of a tree too.

About 400 years ago, the extraordinary poet, George Herbert wrote a poem called The Sacrifice.  And in that poem, Herbert, created a work where he imagined Jesus talking to us, helping us see the suffering he willingly endured for us on the cross.  And in the middle of that poem, Herbert wrote these lines.    
O all you who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, except to me:

In Jesus, God gave up the tree of life, so he might give that tree back to you.   In Jesus, God gave up everything so you might have everything, so you might know this God does love you, even more than life itself.   And because everything is connected, that sacrifice, that gift, has changed everything for you.  It means, right now, if you are alone in your home, you are not alone.  You are never alone.  You are always connected to God, and through God, to those around you, to even the trees outside your window.  And you live in a world shaped and ordered ultimately by that love, a love you can trust, a love that has even defeated death.  And as you trust in that love, you will see it more and more.   You will behold it all around you, in the folks walking on the street, in the words of scripture that nourish you, and even in the trees that surround you.   And as you behold it, you will discover God filling you more peace, with more joy, with more love that you could have imagined possible.  So, trust in the love, for as you do you will discover life, a life more abundant, even in these days, than you could ever imagine.   

Monday, April 13, 2020

Even in the Midst of These Challenging Days, Peace and Joy Can Come. Here's How

Ok I know.  I know.   No one expected this.   No one imagined six weeks ago that not only would thousands of churches be empty on Easter.  No one imagined that those same churches would be telling you not to come.   Ok, well not exactly that.   Churches are still telling you to come, just not in person.   But still, who’d have thunk that?

Yet here we are, an Easter of empty pews, of empty stores, empty theatres, empty restaurants.  And yes, let’s be honest.  It’s been a little scary, more than a bit sobering.  So much seems uncertain.  You can’t help but wonder.  When will this end?  How many will we lose?  And when it does, what then?   But what better time than this to hear this story, in these days of empty pews and empty streets to hear this story of an empty tomb. 

When Jesus died, for his disciples, their world came crashing down.  His death shattered the future they had hoped for.  It stopped the future they thought Jesus was going to bring.   But in this story, a story that has changed everything, they see the truth.   And the truth they see changes everything.  And that truth has continued to do that, even in crisis after crisis, for two thousand years.  That same truth if you see it, if you trust it, will bring you through these days.   So, listen and hear on this day of empty pews, the story of the empty tomb.  See how that story still changes everything.          

How does this story change everything?  It shows you that the end of the story has never been about a grave.   The end of the story has always been about a garden.   And when you see that, it changes everything. 

At first, no-one gets that.   All they can see is the grave.  But when Mary gets there, the grave doesn’t have the very thing every grave needs to have.  It doesn’t have a body.  Jesus has left the tomb.   But of course, no one leaves a tomb.  Someone must have taken Jesus’ body. Imagine it.  Someone you love is brutally killed.  You bury him.  You return to the grave. Why? You simply want to be with this person you love, this person now lost to you.  And you discover.  Someone has taken your loved one.  Someone has desecrated their final resting place.  Can you imagine the pain, the horror Mary felt? 

She reaches out to two of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter and John, to tell them the news.   They come.  They see it too.   They see the empty tomb.  And they believe the only thing they can believe.  The enemies of Jesus have not been satisfied with simply killing him. They’ve taken his body too.    In that empty tomb, they don’t see a victory.   They see an overwhelming loss, a grievous, even crushing one.   And defeated, they go home.

But Mary stays.   We don’t know why she stays.  But something inside of her seems to be saying. This can’t be the end of the story.  It can’t end like this.   And indeed, as we know, it doesn’t end like this. 

But when did Mary get this? When did she know?  Strangely, it doesn’t happen when the two angels show up.   Here Mary is crying at the grave.  And two angels just all of a sudden show up?  Sheesh, you’d think she’d have a clue.   And honestly, it seems the angels think that too.  They ask her.  “Why are you weeping?”  Don’t you get it?    

But even before she can answer, she realizes.  Someone is standing behind her.  And she turns around.  And that’s when things begin to change.  

The empty tomb doesn’t do it.  The left behind graveclothes don’t do it.  The angels don’t even do it.   Why?   Mary is looking in the wrong direction.   She’s looking at the grave.  But the grave is the one place where Jesus isn’t.   So where is Jesus?  It seems he’s walking in the garden, the garden that surrounded his tomb. 

Every day I find it such a disjunction.  I listen to the news, the death toll, the struggles to find equipment and ventilators, to get enough people tested and all of that is frighteningly real.  But then I walk outside, and well, it’s beautiful.   The sun is shining.  Trees are blooming.  And I think.  Wow, it looks so normal, heck, even better than normal. We’ve had some awesome weather.     And at first, I thought.   Well, all this beauty it’s not real.  What’s real is the crisis.  But now I get it.   Both are real.  But one is far bigger than the other. 

You see, when Mary saw that tomb, she was seeing something real.  Jesus had died.  That suffering, that injustice, all that ugliness had happened.    But that’s not where she found Jesus.  She found Jesus in the garden.   In fact, at first, Mary even thinks Jesus IS the gardener.

But is she so mistaken in thinking that?  After all, what do gardeners do?       They take what looks like nothing, barren soil, and bring life out of it.   They bring beauty and abundance.  After all, where does God place the first human beings?  God places them in the garden that God created.  And when God brings about a new beginning, what better place to do it than in a garden? 

And in that garden, that garden where Mary finds Jesus, God is showing you something.  Yes, the grave exists.  It is real, far too real in these days, full of far too much death.   But the garden is far bigger.   And in the garden, God can and will bring life out of even the greatest griefs and losses.

And because Jesus’ followers saw that, Jesus led them to change everything.  And they did.  When epidemics ravaged the Roman empire, killing millions, all that many could see was the grave.   And so, they fled, leaving their friends, even their family behind to die.  But one group of people stayed, those who followed Jesus.  They knew too that the grave was real.  But they knew the garden was bigger, that the one that they had saved them could bring life out of death.  And so, they stayed and cared for the sick.  Christians even established places to care for the sick, places of hospitality.   And soon, these places simply became known as hospitals.  And because Christians looked beyond the grave, they saved thousands of lives, at times at the sacrifice of their own.  But their sacrifice became seeds.  For in those epidemics thousands upon thousands began to follow Jesus.   They wanted to know this God who could conquer the grave, who could place them in a garden even in the darkest of days.

And Christians have been doing that still.  These days, we celebrate doctors and nurses, their skills, their learning.  But did you know that up until the 20th Century, a doctor was more likely to kill you than to cure you?    In fact, you didn’t even need a college degree to become a doctor.  All you needed was the money to pay the tuition.  You didn’t even need to know how to write.   In fact, when someone suggested that the students enrolled at the top medical school in New York City should have a final written exam, the lead professor protested.   He said.  “Half of these students can’t even write.  How could they take a written exam?”  

So, when did that change?  It changed when a wealthy Christian, a Quaker decided to leave behind his wealth when he died to start a school that would do things differently.   And his fellow Quakers who oversaw that gift made that happen.   They recruited a devout young doctor named William Welch to help them start a medical school.   And William Welch went on to recruit the greatest set of medical minds that had possibly ever assembled in one place.   And together with Johns Hopkins wealth, and their passion to bring life out of death, to turn doctors from butchers to healers, Webster and his fellow doctors changed medicine forever in this country.  

And twenty-five years later in 1918, when a horrific pandemic that killed millions hit the world, Welch joined with others to stand on the front lines, and save thousands, maybe millions of lives. In fact, Webster went on to direct the first school of public health in this country to stop such loss of life from ever happening again.  And is it any wonder that Welch and many who stood with him did it because they followed a God who they knew had conquered the grave?  They knew that the grave wasn’t the end, that their God wanted them to bring healing and life into this world.   That God created not a grave but a garden, a place where life could grow and blossom. 

And that garden can appear anywhere even in a war zone.  This past week, I was listening to an interview with David Nott, a surgeon, who for years volunteered to as a doctor in some of the most terrifying war zones on the planet.   And in the interview, the person interviewing him ended with a question about his belief in God.   And Nott said this. 
And it's quite funny that there is no doubt in my mind that there is a higher being there. There's no doubt because on occasions where my life has been almost on the line, where I've felt that within, you know, split second, I'm going to die here, that I do turn - something happens in my head. And I start to pray. And I feel like I have a frequency band on the radio in my head that I turn onto. And I do go onto that frequency and I feel that I am able to talk to God. And I do feel that he is listening to me. And he's listening to my severe anxieties that I'm discussing with him. And it gives me enormous comfort to realize that I am talking to him and that he is giving me some strength back.
Even as David Nott faced death, felt it coming for him, he turned to God.  And God brought him from the grave into the garden, even in the midst of a war.   And in these days, if you but have eyes to see, you can see that garden too.  You can see it in the folks here who shared palm crosses with their neighbors or fed Hollywood’s hungry last weekend.  You can see it in those who have reached out to Marlene, one of our church family who has gone through unspeakable loss and who provided her food and friendship and a safe place to live in this crisis.   You can see it in the countless stories of everyday sacrifice and heroism that have blossomed forth in these challenging days.   But most of all, you can see it in a God who has conquered the grave, who is walking in a garden, who even when in our moments of despair, we can’t see him, he sees us.    And he reminds us that he is the resurrection and the life.  He is the beginning and the end.  And he, Jesus has the final word.   And that word isn’t a grave it’s a garden.  It’s life not death.   It’s hope not despair. 
For Easter reminds us always what time it truly is.  It’s resurrection time.  And that means.  It’s not death time.  It’s new life time.  It’s not virus has the last word time.  It’s Jesus has the last word time.   It’s not crying at the grave time.  It’s get up and help your neighbor time.   It’s not despair time.  It’s hope time.  Because it’s resurrection time.   In resurrection time, you don’t find Jesus in the grave.  You find Jesus in the garden, bringing new life, new hope, a new beginning even in these days.   So, don’t get stuck in the grave.  Because Jesus isn’t there.  Jesus is in the garden bringing new life.   So, join him there.   After all, what is it?   You know.  You can say it right where you’re sitting right now.  It’s resurrection time.   And even in a Sunday of empty pews, that is true.   So go forth and share the new life that Jesus brings, and join him in making this world a garden, a place of life and joy and beauty, even in these challenging days.