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.