Kingdom Enlightenment

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“God says: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 
-Isaiah 49:6 

The light above our kitchen stovetop burned out a few weeks ago. Finally, I attended to it this past weekend. 

But a curious thing happened when I replaced that lightbulb. I noticed other lights in our house that didn’t seem to be measuring up. The light in the upstairs hallway looked dim and dingy. The light above the kitchen table was pale and sickly. The light above our kitchen countertop was suddenly a deficient source of illumination.  

Upon closer examination, I found that some of the lightbulbs in these disappointing lights had burned out. Some had older, less efficient bulbs. Other lightbulbs were the wrong wattage.  

So, I replaced the light bulbs. I cleaned out the lights themselves (blasted ladybugs), and I marveled at the difference that the new light made. In fact, some of us in the Mathis household wondered if some of the light was too bright. The kitchen, now bathed in a more purifying light, showed the signs of cleaning deficiencies and needed home repairs.  

Maybe a weaker light is the preferred light. It would certainly mean that we see things less clearly. That has its advantages, doesn’t it? 

Light illuminates. Light reveals. Light convicts. 

This month, we will be taking a new look at a familiar term in our ecclesiastical lexicon: missions. What does it mean to be on mission? A frequently used buzzword in church life is missional. What does that even mean?  

Our scripture passage from this past Sunday reveals God’s intention for His people. And it’s bigger than his hearers had envisioned.  

“It’s too small a thing,” God says, “to occupy yourselves with yourselves. I have greater plans for you than that.” 

“You are to be a light to the nations—to the world and the people who do not yet know me. You are to be a light so that the gift of my salvation can be available to all.” 

According to God’s word, we do not exist to be a blessing to ourselves. It’s too small a thing to be consumed with our own success. We are to be about more than just maintaining our own well-being. Rather, God intends for us to be light so that others can see.  

Actually, let’s clarify that. We, ourselves, are not the light. Jesus points this out to us in his Sermon on the Mount. Those who belong to Christ, those who have decided to be Kingdom People, those who have professed Christ and who build their foundations on Jesus’s teachings, are the light because Christ shines through them. In short, I am not my own light. My own sense of enlightenment will not save me. My good ideas and good intentions will not save anyone or anything.  

Christ Jesus is our light. And when Christ lives in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls, we are directed to let Christ’s light shine before others so that the world will see His light and give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5:16).  

The sooner we learn this, the more dependent upon Christ we will become. For us to be effective, we’ve got to invite Christ to shine through us. Christ’s values, words, and directions must shine through us. Otherwise, any light that extends from us will be weak and ineffective; it will mask corruption and hinder restorative action.  

But God’s light purifies and directs. God’s light reveals and convicts. God’s light makes the Path clear and becomes a beacon for those who are lost along the way. 

As Jesus illustrates in Matthew 5, God did not create us to be light for a corner of the house, or simply a portion of our community. God’s light shines through us to light the whole house and to be a blessing to the very ends of the earth. 

We’ve sung it frequently at the end of our worship services, and it bears repeating here. It’s a fitting prayer, and a powerful charge: 

“Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father's glory, 
Blaze, Spirit, blaze; set our hearts on fire, 
Flow, river, flow; flood the nations with grace and mercy, 
Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light.” 

That’s all well and fine. But we’ve first got to allow God to swap out the source of our light from ourselves to Christ. We do that when we “gaze on God’s kingly brightness so our faces display His likeness.” 

Therefore, this verse must be prayed before we flip the switch: 

“Lord, I come to your awesome presence, 

From the shadows into your radiance, 
By the blood I may enter your brightness, 
Search me, try me, consume all my darkness, 
Shine on me, shine on me.” 

Yes, God. Shine on us. Shine through us. Not for our own sake. But for the world’s.

Strength for the Journey

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I don’t like it when things are unresolved. But when I was growing up, I used it to my advantage. 

As the youngest child in my family, I had to work hard for attention. I didn’t earn my family’s attention, however. I stole it. One of my more effective efforts at getting attention came at the expense of my musically gifted sister. To elicit a response from her, I simply had to create unresolved suspense by not playing the last measure of a song that I was practicing on the piano in the living room. She liked this not one bit. I found it delicious.  

On Sunday, my sermon did not address the last ‘measure’ of our scripture passage.  

We were looking at the story of Elijah’s response to Queen Jezebel’s threats in 1 Kings 19. Although Elijah had just triumphed over the prophets of Baal in dramatic fashion, the reader finds God’s premier messenger trembling beneath a solitary broom tree in the middle of nowhere. We learned that Elijah wanted to end it all right there. But God was not interested in removing Elijah from his unsettling circumstances, even though that would have represented an answer to Elijah’s prayer. Instead, God sent his angels to attend to Elijah’s needs. Because of God’s intervention, Elijah rested. He was fed and nourished by God’s ambassadors. God provided his servant sanctuary so that his strength could be restored.  

But for what reason? 

Yes, just when your curiosity had been piqued, your preacher omitted the final measure. The story was left unresolved. The question was not answered. Why, indeed, did God provide sanctuary for his prophet?  

Our clue comes from the mouth of one of God’s angels who told Elijah to, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 

God provided sanctuary to his servant so that he would have strength for the journey. Although Elijah was ready for his journey to be over, God was not done with him. God gives him room to despair, yes. God gives Elijah a place to rest, true. And nourishment for healing is provided so that Elijah can continue on his way. This all happened for a reason. The road that Elijah would continue down would lead to a breathtaking encounter with the Living God. This was why God provided Him sanctuary in the first place.  

Although I left this point on the table, so to speak, the point will preach: God provides His people sanctuary because He’s not done with us yet. He knows we need strength for the journey ahead. And God, at least, won’t leave us hanging.  

Jeffrey, the obnoxious 7-year-old in the Mathis household, however, just might. 

Lessons from the Desert

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“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” 

Devout Christians fled the ancient cities of Palestine to take up residence in the most remote of desert locations. These faithful individuals wanted to live lives that were unpolluted by the vices and temptations of urban life. For these faithful sojourners, sin was a disease--a sickness. It was something to avoid at all costs. To be holy and set-apart as God had directed them, they would need a change of scenery. 

So they took to the wild. And the dangers and perils of the wild took to them. And people marveled at their faith, and at their courage, and at their resiliency.  

These pilgrims of the third and fourth centuries would later become known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. More commonly described as hermits and monks, these faithful Christians lived solitary lives. Their accommodations were crude at best, and their sustenance was provided by God’s provisions. Stories of these desert pilgrims would grow in popularity, and it was widely believed that these hermits represented the pinnacle of faithfulness and wisdom. 

Very little about this movement in Christian history sounds appealing. In fact, the lifestyles of the desert monks seem especially hard, if not outright impossible. But it is hard to deny the impression this made on other Christians of the day. Just as we get worked into a frenzy by the latest crazes in our own day and age, Christians in the early days of the church marveled in awe at the level of sincerity that these desert pilgrims exhibited. 

You’ll not be surprised, then, to learn that those who were impressed by these desert monks and hermits raced out to join them. But would they be welcomed? From our vantage point, and from what we’ve been able to gather historically, these desert monks had set up shop in the wilderness to be alone and to live in solitude.  

In a fun twist, however, these desert monks valued community as much as they did the solitude that they sought. In fact, it became widely understood that these desert hermits were particularly skilled at friendship. Although they spent the overwhelming majority of their time in the desert alone, they were prized for the ability to be good friends to one another. We can attribute, therefore, the growth of these desert monastic communities to the founding hermit’s giftedness for developing and nurturing friendship. The communities were assemblies of friends.  

And these were not just any friendships. These friendships had depth and intimacy. Identified simply as soul friendships, these relationships between hermit and student, monk and monk, student and student became defined by their ability to hold one’s deepest secrets and inner-most thoughts and struggles. But more than that, these relationships were crucibles for transformation. These desert soul friends spoke honestly and plainly to one another. They helped one another to grow. They spoke God’s wisdom to one another and helped the other to see Christ’s gracious presence in their lives.  

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of fellowship? 

Not surprisingly, the moniker of Desert Father and Mother stuck because the leaders of these communities helped to parent and midwife the souls of others.  

No, I’m not ready to suggest that we should head deeper into the mountains, eschewing our current lifestyles for the rugged simplicity of the wilderness. But I do wonder if we can learn a lesson from these ancient pioneers of the faith. They took their faith seriously and were willing to sacrifice their modern-day comforts to dedicate themselves to God. But they also became skilled community builders by developing soul friendships that would change the trajectory of other’s lives.  

What would it look like if we became so good at practicing friendship that others would want to be a part of our faith community?  

I think it would look like Church. 

Jesus on the Path

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This past week, I spent a good bit of time on a path.

Some of our hikes were on boardwalks where we could see geological features in all their other-worldly glory. We marveled at the bubbling mud, the belching water and the noxious steam from the geysers.

Some of our hikes led us through open fields and golden grass. Other hikes snaked through pine forests, and along alpine lakes. Our presence spooked mule deer, a fox, elk, and buffalo. Undoubtedly, we were spied by a grizzly bear or two along the way. A few of us even decided to escape the claustrophobic confines of our 12-passenger van to walk along the Madison River at dusk when animal sightings prompted a traffic jam on one of the park’s main arteries.

In all, our small group of pastors and ministers hiked over 30 miles in a few days’ time. We saw Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Park the way they should be experienced—on foot. And I know that I don’t have to tell you how magnificent it was.

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The week-long experience of hiking and discussing the need for our churches to have a Jesus Worldview was enlightening. My trip to Wyoming with colleagues and peers has helped me to better recognize the teachable moments that we can gather from the paths we travel.

Nearly 20 years ago, I hiked many of those same trails by myself. I was a 20-something seminarian who had taken the summer off to road-trip out west. The beauty and grandeur that I experienced those few months have lingered with me through the years. Likewise, so has the memory of the loneliness that I experienced on the trail alone.

No, the loneliness I experienced, then, while on the many hiking trails I traveled was not debilitating or haunting. In fact, it likely added to the experience as I had the chance to process internally the movements of the Holy Spirit in my life. So yes, I had time and space to reflect and to contemplate life.

The contrast, however, between my sojourn out west as a young man and the hiking that I experienced with peers and newfound friends last week was stark. To put it simply: it was good to hike with others.

While on the trail last week, our cadre of ministers would become stretched out over 100 yards or more. We had space to marvel at the scenery and to pray; to think and to consider life. But we also had the freedom to hike in twos and threes, talking together about our churches, our challenges, and our world. We exchanged places on the trail, some of us leading with vigor, and others of us hanging back with those who needed to catch their breath. We’d stop to take pictures of the same vista. We’d slow down to look at wildlife. We’d laugh and joke about our journeys together and would speak in quiet tones about the tender places in our lives.

I’m struck by the reality that this is how Jesus encountered the world. Jesus elected to travel with others—with us! Rather than going it alone, Jesus sought out others to travel alongside him on the Path. He did this, I believe, because of his love for us. I choose to believe that Jesus’s decision to invest himself in others wasn’t simply for the sake of Kingdom-expediency and message-crafting. Instead, I believe he called disciples to travel alongside him because he genuinely wanted to be with them.

Having a Jesus Worldview means traveling with Jesus. When we walk humbly with God on the Path, Jesus’s reality shapes and transforms our own. True, we don’t always spot Jesus—just as his two followers didn’t recognize him on their way to Emmaus that Easter Sunday morning. But he is here with us, coming up alongside us, and leading the way. And the ones we travel with help us to see him and to recognize him.

That’s why we don’t travel alone.

Cultivating a Jesus-Centered Worldview

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This afternoon, I find myself with a handful of other pastors as we survey Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons National Park. I must confess, I feel modestly guilty about this. 

As you can imagine, the setting and scenery that I am enjoying is spectacular. And I am most grateful for the opportunity to be here. Let me tell you a little bit about how I ended up in Wyoming this week. 

Earlier this summer, I was invited to be a part of a discussion by the leaders at Nurturing Faith—a Baptist publishing house that provides much of our Sunday School curriculum---with other pastors to discuss the prospect of a ‘Jesus Worldview’ initiative. Many of you will remember that the editor of Nurturing Faith, Dr. John Pierce, was a guest in our pulpit a couple of years ago. This is how he frames Nurturing Faith’s latest efforts: 

“More than a project, the emerging Jesus Worldview Initiative is a mission to cultivate a Jesus-centered worldview by developing and delivering a variety of timely resources, quality leadership training and inspirational/educational events that offer a positive, unifying view of the Christian faith and foster congregational health.  

This collaborative and integrated effort is being envisioned and guided by Nurturing Faith — the publishing brand of 35-year-old non-profit Baptists Today, Inc. — with ecumenical engagement. 

The Jesus Worldview Initiative (JWVI) need grew out of positive responses to writings by executive editor John D. Pierce and contributing writer Bruce Gourley in the autonomous, national Nurturing Faith Journal — that called for emphasizing a “Jesus worldview” to counter the growing misuse of “worldview” terminology to advance divisive and politicized definitions of Christian faithfulness. 

“[Nurturing Faith] invited a few pastors and other Christian leaders to see if we could come up with something they we are calling a ‘Jesus worldview,’ rather than a ‘biblical worldview,’” Pastor Jim Somerville told the congregation of First Baptist Church of Richmond, Va. “It didn’t take long … to realize that Jesus had not only dropped out of the so-called biblical worldview, but out of the daily practice of many of us who call ourselves Christians … I renewed my commitment to Jesus as Lord.” 

As you can imagine, I’m honored to be included in these conversations and I am thankful for the chance to contribute during this early phase of development. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that our conversation is taking place in a most-remarkable place. 

But it is not home. And at this time of the year, I pine for our mountains and for the company of our church family and friends. I will be home soon, and I will see you Sunday.  

Autumn Delayed

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I took a peek at the long-range forecast and I did not like I what I saw. The heat and humidity of summer is not budging. In fact, it may just be strengthening. 

And that may just do me in.  

By this time in the calendar year I am eager for a change of seasons. The vibrant green of spring has long since transitioned to the deep, forest green of late summer. The humidity levels are as high as they will ever be. The days are getting shorter, but the sun seems unrelenting.  

I was confused as a child in school when the calendars would depict September as the month of going back to school amidst a backdrop of autumn-clad trees. What a fib. Autumn in the south doesn’t truly get started until much later. My mother, a teacher in Atlanta at the time, wouldn’t put up her autumn bulletin board until after Halloween.  

What a travesty.  

It’s a shame autumn can’t start earlier and last longer. Because as we know, fall is the most glorious of seasons—especially in our mountains. The crisp, cool air and the warm sunlight make me eager for football and marching bands, apple cider and the smell of smoke from a wood stove. Autumn is golden and evokes a euphoric, even sentimental, air. There is a magical, transcendent quality to fall and I yearn for its breathtaking beauty.  

But not yet. And not anytime soon. 

So, I will have to outlast the heat. I will have to outlast the discomfort. I will have to outlast summer’s last oppressive stand.  

I have found that the word ‘outlast’ captures well the experience of being in realities that we feel trapped in. To outlast an illness and to outlast a tiresome work assignment points to a resilient spirit that will not give up. It means that the anxiety, discomfort and irritation that we feel—whether petty or profound—will not win the day. We will outlast it, come what may.  

I am encouraged by those in scripture who had to outlast their circumstances. It gives me hope that I can do the same. I remember Joseph who outlasted a villainous woman and a long prison sentence. I think of Naomi who outlasted the grief that accompanied the loss of her husband and sons until she was able to begin a new season in her life. Nathan, God’s prophet, had to outlast the tension that came from knowing about King David’s affair and the murder that he plotted. Stephen, the great martyr of the faith, outlasted the terrible pain of his stoning, and the Father in Jesus’s famous parable had to outlast the season of separation from his youngest, prodigal son. 

In each of our lives, we will experience setbacks, conflict and unimaginable terrors. I wish it were not so. But these moments all bring us to a point of discernment; a crossroads, as it were. When beset by these difficult seasons, we will either choose to weather them, or we will succumb to the pain and surrender the gift of life that God continues to give to us. 

James 1:12 reads: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (NIV) 

God wants us to outlast the trials that we experience for our trials are not the end. True, when we are in seasons of extended distress, we lose heart and cannot see beyond the pain that we are experiencing. Our church, then, can become a host of encouragers for one another so that we can see what we cannot yet grasp—that is, relief, promise, victory, hope. The refreshment of our souls may not come until eternity stretches out before us, but therein lies a truth that is made bedrock by the Gospel. Our lives—and what we can see—are not the end. Sometimes we must weather and outlast even our very lives. But with God’s strength we will do just that. Because God’s ultimate hope will win the day. It may be delayed, but it will not be defeated.  

Stewing Is Not Praying

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A seasoned couple once had a quarrel. It was over a trivial matter, but their clash had not blown over. There was a sense of dis-ease in the air as they did the dishes in silence. 

Afterwards, the husband retreated to the den to read the newspaper. The wife marched upstairs to their bedroom and slammed the door. She could be heard pacing the floor of the room above, and her voice on the telephone was animated and punctuated with statements like, “And then I told him…” and “Then he said…” 

When the husband finally retired to their bedroom some hours later, his wife glared at him from the bathroom. After a few minutes of awkward shuffling, she said:  

“Well, I’ve been praying all night long, and…” 

The man interrupted her and said, “Now honey, I am sorry. I misspoke earlier and then I made it worse when I denied it. So there. But as for you praying all night long, let’s be clear on this: you weren’t praying. You were stewing.” 

Praying is not stewing. If it was, our righteousness would outshine the sun. 

Let’s face it, stewing is far more enjoyable than praying. When we stew on something, we replay an event over and over in our heads. We write a verbatim of our conversations. We craft the perfect script of our encounters. Our responses are pitch-perfect in our recreated histories. They benefit from hindsight and we are never at fault.  

This, brothers and sisters, is not prayer.  

Sometimes, we’re not able to showcase our talents, so we replay the hurts or sleights that we experienced in a never-ending loop. Like getting pleasure from pressing a bruise, we revisit the pain and feel justified in feeling sorry for ourselves.  

This, brothers and sisters, is not prayer.  

And then there are the moments when we can’t help but to talk about it with someone else. This tends to escalate the issue, doesn’t it? But at this point, we’re okay with the heightened state of anxiety because we’ve been able to highlight to others how we’ve done no wrong.  

This, brothers and sisters, is not prayer.   

Finally, we turn things over in our heads with such frequency that the experience feels burned into our souls. We worry, we fret, we stress; all with the intention of making sense of circumstances that somehow feel beyond our control. 

This too, brothers and sisters, is not prayer.  

It’s stewing. It’s running in place. It’s suspending progress in favor of the past.  

In the Gospels, Jesus encourages us to avail ourselves of prayer so that we can be honest and transparent with God. Jesus teaches us to depend on God, to pray for others, and to pray that we might have the strength to do as God commands.  

If that’s what prayer is, then let’s acknowledge that it’s hard work. It’s hard work because our faithful prayers often devolve into fantasies—fantasies about things that we wish would have been different in our past, and fantasies of things we desire for the future. When this happens—when our prayers become our stewing—our strength is sapped, and our souls are soured. And this is not what God wants for us.  

Paul’s statements that we pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and in all things (Philippians 4:6) lend themselves to a kind of stream of consciousness experience. And while that may be well and fine, let’s hear this cautionary note: God is not our journal. God is not our diary. God is on the other line, so to speak.  

Our thoughts and our musings, our reflections and our deliberations become prayers when they invite God to change and transform us. Our prayers transcend our stewings when we selflessly consider God’s will—not God’s providence, mind you—but God’s desire for His Kingdom.  

In this way, prayer looks like Jesus in the Garden. He honestly shares his desire, but he ultimately chooses God’s desire.  

May we have the strength to spend more time on the latter, rather than the former. Because, when our prayers focus on our desires, we’re just stewing.  

Following the God Who Comes Up Alongside Us

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“We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road.” * 

Beginning this week, the road that I will be venturing down will be to Buies Creek and Campbell University Divinity School. I am beginning the second year of my studies in their Doctorate of Ministry program.  

My journey will be a three-year experience. It will culminate in the project—or experiment—that I will conduct in the Fall of 2019. I will write about the results of this Doctoral project and will defend it in the Spring of 2020. All of my classwork, independent study and research these first two years of my program will prepare me for my project, where I will invite our church members to participate in a study that will test the power and efficacy of Celtic Spiritual Practices in the life of our faith community.  

“We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.” * 

The story of the two disciples who encounter the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24 features prominently in my studies. I am drawn to this moment in the post-resurrection narrative because it carries such honesty and hope for fellow travelers on the road of faith. You may recall that the two pilgrims in Luke’s Gospel had been followers of Jesus until he had been crucified in Jerusalem. They were once insiders in the Jesus-movement, but the reader learns that they had given up and are returning home to Emmaus. The travelers are grieving the loss of their leader and in the one they hoped would be their Messiah. They are disappointed and downtrodden. Unbeknownst to these two pilgrims, Christ comes up and joins them on their trip. He speaks truth to them and becomes the way for them to understand the greater story of God’s love for His people. The story culminates with the revelation that the person who has been traveling with them is none other than Jesus, himself. This epiphany moves them—literally—and they spring up to race back to tell the Twelve in Jerusalem what they had experienced firsthand.  

This story will form the Biblical foundation for my project. The travelers’ journey, their destination and their walk together with Christ is the framework for my experiment for I believe that both the Way and the Place in faith matters.  

This semester, I will take another step down this path. My time in Buies Creek will be limited this fall as most of my work transitions to independent study. The class that I am taking at Campbell this fall is “Social Context of Ministry in Today’s World” and will focus on the discipline of pastoral care. The other class that I am taking--my independent study--will be made up of research and personal experimentation with the Celtic distinctive called Anam Cara. Anam Cara—or “one who shares the cell”—was the practice of soul friendship in ancient Ireland and was the way in which faithful Christians shared their lives with one another. Anam Cara was the way in which they provided encouragement, support and accountability to fellow believers.  

“I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.” * 

I cannot do this journey alone. And because of your love, support and encouragement along the way, First Baptist Church, I haven’t had to. I am so very grateful for your presence with me and our family while we walk this path. You have provided me with space to ask the deeper questions of our faith while making yourselves available to learn alongside me. Thank you for blessing this journey. I pray that my discoveries will be a blessing to you, to our church and to others who are striving to be faithful along the Way.  

“I will share your joy and sorrow, till we’ve seen this journey thro. When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony. Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.” * 

* ”The Servant Song” was written by Richard Gillard and is featured in the Baptist Hymnal, hymn number 613.  

Waiting

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Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  
-Hebrews 11:1

I do not like to wait. Period. End of story.  

There’s no caveat, no qualification, no re-framing. I absolutely loathe waiting. I will reluctantly concede, however, that waiting is necessary. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

And yet, there is much waiting in life. You’d think I’d come to peace with that, but oh no.  

I remember waiting impatiently for my father to pick me up from daycare when I was small. I would watch from the corner of the playground each afternoon, anxious to see his gray Volkswagen pull in the drive. 

As an older child, I waited for school to begin in August and for school to end in June. I waited for the ice cream truck to arrive in the neighborhood. I waited for my friend to come over to play. I waited for my sister to come back from college. I waited to become a teenager, a college student, an adult.  

I’ve waited for transitions to end, for college acceptance letters to arrive, and for the pain of a break-up to subside. I’ve waited for jobs to end, job offers to be given, and for jobs to begin.  

Over the years I have sought to mitigate my waiting by being as effective or efficient as I could. “Perhaps,” I’ve often mused, “if I arrange my life by doing this or by doing that, I won’t have to wait as long as I might otherwise.” And sometimes, sometimes, this approach has worked. More often than not, though, my tinkering with things only complicates and prolongs the wait.  

As much as I’ve tried, I’ve learned that you cannot completely escape waiting. You cannot avoid waiting, because life is waiting. I know this because I’ve found myself waiting alongside you. Much of my prayers and my pastoral care for you has centered on a season of waiting in your life.  

You have waited for test results.  

You have waited for the doctor to arrive. 

You have waited for surgery, for the new treatment, for the all-clear from the lab tech. 

We wait for that phone call, that email, that text message, that conversation. Wait, wait, wait. 

You have waited for a job change. You have waited for your spouse to get well. You have waited for your adult child to come home, and for the real estate agent to call with good news. You have waited for new election cycles. You have waited for a loved one to say yes to your proposals. You have waited for your pain to ease. 

You have waited for the effects of the stroke to dissipate. You have waited for your sister to admit her addictions and to get help. You have waited for your husband to die. 

The term ‘waiting’ doesn’t capture how excruciating this experience is. The word, ‘vigil,’ however, does. The root of this word points to being ‘awake’ and connotes a period of staying up in prayer…waiting. Anticipating. Yearning.  

Waiting is central to the story of our faith, and to the story of God’s people. The writer of Hebrews tries to capture some of this, but in truth, it offers but a snapshot of a greater epic of people who have waited. 

Abraham waits for the covenant to be fulfilled. Sarah waits for a child to be born. So does Hannah, and so does Elizabeth. Joseph waits for reconciliation and redemption. The Hebrews wait for liberation. The Israelites wait for the Promised Land. They wait for effective leaders and for prophets and for hope.  

King Saul waits for his end to arrive. David, the shepherd boy, waits for the fulfillment of his anointing. In time, he awaits justice. He awaits God’s forgiveness. He awaits the consequences of his actions. 

Israel waits. And waits. And waits. They fearfully wait for His prophecies to come true. They forlornly wait for the Exile to end. They wait for the arrival of God’s promised one. They wait for Elijah to return. 

Jesus waited. He waited for his time to arrive as an adult to step in to His prophetic role and ministry. He waited for the right time to visit his friends, Mary and Martha, when their brother Lazarus died. Jesus waited in Gethsemane. Jesus waited for his death to arrive. Jesus waited in the grave.  

The early church waited for the Holy Spirit. They waited in hiding. They waited in prison. They waited for God’s Kingdom to come.  

To live, therefore, is to wait. To be a person of faith, then, is to wait. What gets us through our waiting, our vigils, our yearnings, is faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  

Faith is the confidence we have while we wait. And faith, I need not remind you, is hard, hard work.  

I am grateful, therefore, that as a people of faith, we do not have to wait alone. Faith is hard enough. Trying to have faith in isolation, however, is a terrible and lonely path. When we are alone in our vigils, the devil plays with our minds and with our imaginations. It is so easy to lose faith when doubt and despair are articulated in the myriad of possibilities that we can imagine. But if we have others to wait with, then, maybe we have a better shot of keeping the faith. 

Jesus sure thought so. Do you remember his vigil? That night when he awaited the guards, the trial, the pain, his own death? He didn’t want to wait alone. He begged his friends to wait with Him, but they could not stay awake to help him get through the interminable waiting.  

No, it doesn’t always turn out the way in which we had hoped and in the ways in which we had prayed. Jesus, and his vigil are evidence of that. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus’s suffering and death are redeemed in his resurrection. God’s ultimate hope wins the day.  

And I believe that God’s ultimate hope will win the day for you and for me, also. I absolutely believe that what God has started, He will see through to completion. I believe that God will fulfill His promises. True, our short-term, near-term, immediate hopes often fail us. And we should rightly mourn these moments and pray that these seasons are brief. Our ultimate hope in God’s provisions, however, is not in jeopardy. These hopes have simply not been realized.  

Yet.   

So, in the mean-time, while we wait, it’s good to know we don’t have to wait alone.  

What Lies Beneath

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You’ve probably heard by now that Europe has been scorched by a terrible heatwave these last weeks. Until the last few years, western and northern Europe had prided themselves on not needing air conditioning to cool their homes. Summers there are typically cool and often drizzly. The records that are being set there this summer, however, are proving that their climate is changing and that they might want to consider a window unit. At the very least. 

In addition to the pictures of brown lawns and sweaty Brits, another phenomenon has made headlines in Europe. The unrelenting heat and accompanying drought has revealed the secrets and scars of yesterday’s past. Visible most clearly from the air, observers are finding that the torrid summer heat is burning off the grass to reveal ancient burial grounds, the ruins of forgotten castles—even moats!--as well as mansions, gardens and even munitions from previous World Wars.  

In one fascinating instance, the letters EIRE can be seen as a ghostly script written into the fields above Ireland’s west coast. The practice of emblazoning the grass with the word EIRE—which is Gaelic for Ireland—was used in World War 1 to warn combatants in the air not to bomb the neutral nation.  

This has served to remind me that stress often reveals what’s going on beneath the surface. As we begrudgingly admit, nothing stays hidden forever. When the heat is on, we more easily see what lies beneath. 

As much as we might like to try, we cannot escape our past. The hurts and the losses, the injuries and the tragedies of yesterday are imprinted on our souls. And just when we think we had forgotten these moments and fault lines of circumstances and eras long forgotten, a merciless heatwave reveals that they are still etched on our hearts.  

Stress, then, can be the great revealer of what lies beneath.  

I came across this quote from an unknown author the other day and it has lingered with me in a way that suggests truth: 

“I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” 

The angst and anger that we feel may be masking the grief (or anticipated grief) that we feel over the losses we experience in life.  

Our anger and resentment, irritations and furies may be more than circumstantial annoyances. They may be reflective of a deeper reality that we have tried to forget and repress. But our efforts of suppression will ultimately be unsuccessful because heat and pressure reveal what we’ve tried so hard to ignore. And at its root is loss. At the heart of these scars is our grief for the way things played out in our past.  

Let’s face it. Our scars feel beyond redemption. It’s no wonder that we try and hide them. 

Thankfully, Jesus didn’t think so.  

As he revealed to his disciples, Jesus had scars. But unlike you and me, Jesus had the strength and courage to allow for his past to become part of a story that had become a sign of God’s redemptive power. In his betrayal, and in his apparent failure as God’s preeminent prophet, Jesus was a broken Messiah who was wounded by the people he had come to save. Brokenness, however, is part of the human experience. And like Christ, we are all broken in any number of real and painful ways.  

But our brokenness is not the end and it does not always have to haunt us. Our pain and our sorrows, our failures, defeats and lost-causes should not be repressed or hidden, but should rather be allowed to be mourned so that its power over us can be mitigated. This requires patience, and courage, and resolve. It requires maturity and a spirit of reflection so that we are not blindsided today by yesterday’s pain.  

Again, we cannot hide what lies beneath forever and always. It will surface; and at the most inopportune moments. But the good news is that these places of pain and sorrow will be redeemed just as God redeemed the death of his son. The more quickly we reveal our scarred pasts to God’s light, the more swiftly they will become part of our stories of redemption.  

Scorched earth requires time to heal. Christ’s own redemption took a season of darkness before his scars were able to become object lessons for hope and for God’s eternal healing. But with the waters of our baptism, God can bring new life to the most-scorched of landscapes. And where there was once pain, hope and healing can spring up.  

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