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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The Melody of God’s Word

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When I was child, my family attended church on Sunday evenings. And if we were lucky, we would have a ‘Hymn Sing.’ For those unfamiliar with this term, a ‘Hymn Sing’ consists of a worship service where the content was, well, the singing of hymns. 

At the church I grew up in, people would shout out the title of the song they were requesting as the current hymn wound down. As I recall, there was an art to knowing when to call out the next hymn. If you yelled your song request out too early, it wouldn’t be heard over the sound of the piano or organ. If you waited too long, Ms. Higgenpowers would shout out, “Just as I Am” and its 41 verses.  

No one liked Ms. Higgenpowers. 

But I digress. One Sunday, my song request was heard and granted. I had yelled out, “Pass it on” and the music minister signaled for the congregation to turn to my hymn. This hymn was relatively new to the Baptist Hymn canon. I loved it because, like me, it was a product of the 1970s. It was contemporary. It was fresh. It didn’t sound like the other hymns. 

“I’ll shout it from the mountain top!” the song rang out. “I want my world to know, the Lord of love has come to me. I want to pass it on.”  

Although I love many different expressions of music in worship, there can be no denying the power of the Baptist Hymnal in helping to shape my faith over the years. Congregational singing is a deeply moving experience for me as I know that it is for many of you. Yes, the language of the lyrics is sometimes antiquated. And yes, the tune may not be as modern as what we listen to in the car. But, the theology, the scripture, and the testimony of the faithful who have gone on before us is undeniably present in the hymns that we sing.  

I feel the power of Easter when we sing, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” 

I am reminded of the rich and storied tradition of the Church when we sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” 

I long for the chord in the last refrain of “Holy, Holy, Holy” when we land on the bedrock phrase: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” 

The music that we sing in worship each Sunday has been sung by our brothers and sisters in Christ in so many different settings, and for so many different occasions.  

“This Is My Father’s World” was once the theme song of Vacation Bible School when I was a child. “Morning Has Broken” was the hymn at an Easter Sunrise Service at the first church I served after seminary. I presented a framed copy of the words to “The Servant Song,” to Rebecca when I proposed to her.  

I have seen parents who have lost their child sing at the funeral, “It Is Well with My Soul,” with tears streaming down their faces. I have heard students belt out, “Be Thou My Vision,” on retreats. I felt the ground shake when the organ played the downbeat of, “For All the Saints,” at my first chapel service at Princeton Seminary. I remember singing, “My Lord is Near Me All the Time,” with my father as we took refuge in our backyard shed during a ferocious thunderstorm. 

“In the lightning flash across the sky His mighty power I see, And I know if He can reign on high, His light can shine on me.”  

“I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder, and felt it in the rain; My Lord is near me all the time, My Lord is near me all the time.”  

Yes, I know of God’s Good News because the Bible has told me so. But the music of God’s Church has given me a melody to remember it by. And for that, I am most deeply grateful. I can imagine that you feel the same. 

Hope for the In-Between Times

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“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27

I genuinely wish that it was not true. But it is. As we walk along the Path, we will encounter danger.  

As we’ve identified in worship these last weeks, the Bible is littered with stories about how the faithful encountered trouble along the way. Peter was thrown in prison, where he awaited his impending execution. Paul’s journey to Rome made little progress and nearly took his life. Nehemiah was trying to rally the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem’s city walls when they encountered sabotage. Jesus tells the story of an individual who was attacked while traveling on the path and was left for dead by robbers.  

We take consolation in the fact that God redeems these challenging moments and even uses them for good. Peter was rescued by an angel. People’s lives were saved because Paul’s boat kept getting blown off course. Nehemiah experienced the power and strength of community. And that poor soul who was beat up was tended to by a good-hearted neighbor.  

To sum up a month’s worth of study, we’d quote Paul’s motivational speech from the deck of the ship that was being battered by the waves: “Take heart, friends!”  

Be courageous. Have no fear. Do not lose heart. 

Not all of our stories have happy endings, though, do they? I am troubled by this, too, brothers and sisters. To suggest otherwise would be flat out dishonest.  

To live means to lose. The author of Ecclesiastes makes this point well-enough, but we really don’t need to turn to the Old Testament to learn this lesson. We know this to be true because the ways of our world are relentless and hard. It doesn’t always turn out the way we wish. Our prayers are not always answered. Bad things happen to us along the way. 

Where then is our hope? 

Our hope lies in a God who will not allow sorrow and pain to win. First the hard news: sometimes the sorrow and the pain that we experience in life does in fact win the day. Now the good news: the darkness that we experience will not win the war. Because of God’s love for us, and because of the power of the resurrection, we can forever claim God’s victory over eternal sorrow and eternal pain. This reality—this kingdom reality—is what keeps us going when we live a story that does not have a happy ending. 

People of faith seem to understand that there may be (typically is) a sizeable gap between our hard stories and a happy ending. In fact, that happy ending may be delayed until the Great Day of the Lord. We have ultimate hope, yes. It’s the in-between time that weighs us down.  

Jesus seemed to anticipate this reality when he was concluding his earthly ministry with his disciples. He grasped that his disciples would have to live in the in-between. He knew that there would be times when his followers would not feel the ultimate resolution and redemption of their circumstances. He knew that his followers would be disheartened, downcast and frightened.  

So, he sought to reassure them.  

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Jesus promises us peace for the in-between times. When we are experiencing hardship and challenge and have not yet experienced the hope of divine resolution, Jesus gives us peace.  

I think it’s important to note that he does not promise to make it all better. Our well-intended parents used to lie to us when we were children, didn’t they? We would experience a boo boo, or a let-down, or a loss, and they would seek to comfort us with kisses, hugs, milkshakes, maybe even cash. And they would ask us, “Now, isn’t that better?”  

Yes, we would nod. And we would lie, too. 

It didn’t make it better. But our parents’ presence made a difference, didn’t it? 

Jesus gives us peace—not as the world gives—but as only God can give. “Be of good courage,” He tells us. “Shrug off the troubles that weigh you down.”  

Christ’s peace is decidedly hard to define. Perhaps it is the gift of non-anxiousness in the midst of stress and worry. Maybe it’s the sense of sanctuary that we experience when our world goes to hell. Maybe it’s the sensation of being held and of being swaddled in assurance and encouragement.  

Whatever Christ’s peace is, it is enough. The Bible tells us so.  

I like how Christian author, Frederick Buchner says it: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”  

But fear is so easy. How do we resist its inky darkness? 

By choosing Christ. That’s how. For He stands with us in the in-between.  

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When We Regret Our Behavior on the Path

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What do we do when we experience danger on the Path of life? 

This has been the question that we’ve been holding these last few Sundays in worship. Peter found himself in jail, waiting for his impending execution. Paul kept getting blown off course on his way to Rome. Nehemiah and his faithful friends encountered sabotage when they tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  

In each of these circumstances, God redeemed the difficult and the challenging. Thus, we are able--in the words of Paul—"To take heart and to be courageous!” in the face of the obstacles that spring up along the way. 

But how about God? How has God responded when things didn’t go as He had hoped? What did God, Himself, do when faced with disappointment and heartache?  

In a word, He overreacted. Let me explain. 

We all know that God created the world and all that is in it. And he proclaimed it was good. But things did not go as He had hoped. God’s creation—namely, humankind—had grievously disappointed Him.  

Genesis 6 reports that, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-6) 

Let that last line sink in for a moment and feel the sense of despair God once felt: “I am sorry that I have made them.”  

This was not what God had intended. His creation, says the author of Genesis, “had become corrupted and was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12) God had become disgusted with his creation, save for one person—Noah. He made a promise with Noah and his family and instructed him to make a lifeboat for humanity and the animal kingdom. 

God’s response to this tragic set of circumstances is to eradicate the creation that he once called beloved.  

“I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life.” (Genesis 6:17) 

When faced with a significant fork in the road, God chooses to blow it all up which, of course, is His right. God is God, and we are not. Although we may find this demonstration of divine wrath particularly hard to imagine, we cannot escape the fact that God may do with His creation as He sees fit.  

But God almost instantly regrets his decision to destroy his creation. Upon smelling the sweet aroma of the burnt offerings from Noah’s sacrifice, “The Lord said in His heart: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21) 

God seems remorseful for what He has done. He will not do again what he has done. Yes, God seems sorry for his decision to wipe out creation. 

It’s true. This image of a sorrowful God is unsettling and dispiriting. We’re not accustomed to thinking of the God of the Universe with such decidedly human attributes.  

And yet… 

There is something quite reassuring about this unnerving story. God reacts to a disappointment on the Path much like we do when we experience heartache, frustration and tragic changes of plans. We often respond to these circumstances and developments with harsh words, with debilitating sorrow and yes, even violence. And like God, we’ve also come to regret these gut reactions.  

But like God, we can also learn from these moments. God certainly learned from what He had done. Upon seeing the power of his wrath as dispensed by His omnipotent hand, God chooses never to do it again. What’s more, he makes a solemn promise to the survivors of His apocalyptic actions, saying: “I am establishing my covenant with you…(that) never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11) 

God even creates a reminder--we’ll call it insurance for humanity--so that he will not unloose his wrath upon the whole of His creation. God creates a rainbow, not to remind humankind of his promise but to remind Himself of the promise He had made with them.  

“When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:16) 

This statement is consistent with the great love and commitment that God demonstrates to His people throughout the story of Israel and also in the new covenant that He makes to us in Jesus. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) 

Things do not always go as we had hoped or as we had planned. Danger is definitely present along the way. And sometimes, sometimes, we do not respond the way we should. We react. We lash out.  

But we can learn from these moments and promise never to react in that same way again. We have the capacity to learn, to be reminded of the consequences of our actions and to do better next time.  

God, Himself, shows us how.

Lessons from the Thai Soccer Team and Their Rescuers  

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I’m going to blame my older brother and sister for this. 

When I was a young lad, my siblings liked to have some fun at my expense. They would spread a large blanket on the floor and invite me to lie down on one edge of the square. Then, they would roll me up like a burrito. In essence, I was swaddled up and could not escape the bonds of my fabric prison. 

My brother and sister found this hilarious.  

I did not.  

This is the traumatic event (No, I don’t think I am exaggerating) that I point to when I feel the telltale signs of claustrophobia in crowded elevators or while exploring a tight cavern or corridor.  

Whether you’re claustrophobic or not, who among us has not been terrified of the predicament that has befallen the soccer team of teenage boys in Thailand these last weeks? The team had been exploring an extensive cave after a soccer game when water from heavy rains flooded the compartments and trapped the boys nearly 2 miles underground. They had been feared lost until a diving crew discovered them safe and sound in a compartment-like room that gave them space to escape the cold water and to breathe in the air pocket that had formed above the water.  

By now you’ve heard how impossible the team’s extraction seemed. Strategies for rescue ranged from keeping them in the cave for weeks, if not months, until the monsoon-induced flood waters receded, to teaching them how to swim and use scuba gear. To complicate matters, the levels of oxygen in the cave had diminished to barely survivable limits in recent days and there were worries that the flood waters within the cave might continue to rise.  

Something had to be done and be done quickly. 

I am pleased to report that as of Tuesday morning, all of the boys and their coach had been rescued from the cave. Their nearly four-hour journey to the surface included tethering the boys to trained Navy SEALS, fitting them with oxygen masks, and then threading them through the tight twists and turns of a serpentine cave system. Rescuers had feared that a single moment of panic from either a boy or a SEAL along their 2-mile journey to safety would end in disaster. And yet, everyone who was trapped has now safely been returned to the surface after surviving underground for 3 weeks.  

While watching this drama unfold, I’ve learned the following lessons: 

1.) The Thai soccer team’s ability to be non-anxious saved their lives. 

It has now been reported that the coach of the team taught the boys how to meditate while they awaited rescue. Had they not practiced meditation, the boys’ unregulated breathing would have used up all the available oxygen in the chamber. They were kept calm and serene because their leader modeled a non-anxious presence, and also taught the boys how to be non-anxious themselves.  

While there are differences between meditation and prayer (emptying one’s self vs. filling one’s self with the Holy Spirit), the results of both are similar. Our bodies, minds and souls are quieted. The Gospel reveals to us an unflappable God in Jesus Christ who frequently retreated to pray and to meditate, while also modeling for his disciples and to us what it looks like to be dependent on God’s presence and strength.  

2.) The boys demonstrated great courage. 

If the boys were afraid—and who wouldn’t be?—they certainly did not allow their fears to paralyze them from being a part of their own rescue. The boys couldn’t simply be saved. The boys, themselves, had to be active participants in their own rescue. They had to swim, maneuver, twist and turn alongside the professional divers in order to be freed. To do that, they had to dig deep and be brave. They had to do something they had never done before, and get it right the very first time. In case you’re wondering, this is what courage looks like.  

3.) A global community worked together to do what initially seemed impossible.  

The world saw the need and worked together to solve a problem that seemed unworkable. Perhaps this is why the story captured such attention across so many political, social, and cultural fault-lines. Everyone worked together to save the trapped boys. Differences were laid aside to help those who were in need. A spirit of collaboration was generated by the obvious need, and the question of whether the boys deserved the chance to be saved never influenced the strategies to rescue them.  

I’m inspired and encouraged by what unfolded in Thailand these last three weeks, and I cannot help but to wonder what more we can do in this world to help and to save others. As followers of Jesus Christ and as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we should be on the front lines of efforts to help, to feed, to rescue, to assist, to bless, and to encourage those in need—regardless of the reasons why they might not deserve our care. There should be no question whether we should provide counsel, sanctuary, kindness or love to others when they are in need. Our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to. In fact, this is what God requires us to do for our enemies. Imagine then what our actions toward our neighbors should look like.  

Let us not forget Matthew 22:36-40

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

It Is More Blessed to Give than to Receive

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I remember it plain as day. It was a strange scene to say the least. 

Years ago, I was helping to lead Vacation Bible School. It was the end of the day and I was putting things back in the closet when I heard the shrieks from a child on the playground. Hurrying outside, I saw something that I didn’t think was possible. 

One of our older children had chosen (unwisely) to get in a swing that was clearly designed for a much smaller child. The swing was a kind of harness, complete with holes for the child’s legs to fit through. When I stepped out on to the playground, I saw that her legs had gotten stuck in the harness. She was imprisoned; held fast to the swing. But that wasn’t all. She was hanging upside down.  

Now, I have no idea how this must have happened. But what compounded the oddity of the scene was that another child, about the same age, was standing nearby watching the girl scream in terror. The witness to this playground malfunction was a mature child who could have, I thought, brought some kind of assistance to the dilemma at hand. And yet, he just stood there looking at her while she screamed.  

After remedying the conundrum with the gravity-defying child, I turned my attention to the child who had watched the girl hang upside down.  

Perplexed by the other child’s obvious nonchalant response to his peer’s predicament, I asked him, “Why didn’t you try and help her?”  

He shrugged and said, “The devil told me I didn’t need to.” 

I was irritated with the child until I thought more about his response. The more that I reflected on it, the more I found myself moved by the honesty of his statement. We oftentimes assume that evil wishes for us to take a particular malicious action. However, sometimes the tempter succeeds in getting us to do nothing when something is called for.  

Jesus calls the devil the Deceiver, after all. 

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul highlights a teaching from Jesus that we do not have access to in the Gospels. He says, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35). 

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” 

Funny statement, this is. We’ve heard it all our lives. Although we don’t have a record of Jesus saying these exact words, he does tell us that when we “give… it will be given (back) to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:38) 

Here’s the thing. I don’t think we believe it. I don’t think we actually believe that it is more of a blessing to give—that is, to be generous, to contribute, to share--than it is to receive.  

If we stop and think about it, the statement seems absurd. Who doesn’t want to receive? We are consumed with consumption. It is far better to be served. It is far more desirable to be comfortable. It is far more satisfying to get what we desire.  

Besides, we don’t have enough to share or to give away. Right?  

Ah, this is the deception that we allow ourselves to buy into. We equate giving with loss rather than gift or blessing.  

In truth, I’m not sure we openly talk about this. Much of our energy is placed on the needs that exist and not the blessing that we receive when we contribute. We tend to emphasize the morality of giving, and that we are compelled to give. Not surprisingly, then, we grow resentful of those who ask us to give or share.  

But Paul gets it. In lifting up the truth about giving, he draws our attention to a God who knows the joy of being a creator of good things, of being radically generous, of bestowing blessings upon others. Jesus teaches us that it is a blessing to God when He gives us life, supplies our needs, showers us with good things.  

We give and contribute and are generous because God has first been generous to us! To give is not a burden. True, giving is a sacrifice. But the gift is that in giving we receive far more than we could have ever asked or imagined.  

But we just don’t buy it, do we?  

We’ve allowed ourselves to become stingy with the gifts God has given us. We hold on to our resources because we cannot imagine how God could bless us by giving something valuable away.  

Isn’t this the story of the boy who shared his meager lunch with Jesus, only to see God work a miracle through it? We are resistant to believe that God could be that powerful with our own sacrifices, and our own giving. So, we choose not to give.  

But the truth is, giving is such a blessing! Rebecca and I have been roundly astounded by God’s blessings to us when we have tithed our incomes to the church and contributed offerings to needy causes. Many would argue that we are not being wise stewards of our resources. And from a worldly perspective, that is definitely true. The money we give away could have been used to make improvements on our home, invested in our retirements, or put aside for our children’s education. And yet, God has always, always, supplied our needs (and then some). When we have given generously, we have been richly blessed beyond measure.  

Why are we so resistant to believing that it is more blessed to give than to receive? 

I don’t know. Perhaps we’ve been deceived by the world. Perhaps the devil has convinced us we that we don’t have to give.  

You know, the Deceiver’s not stupid. He knows what a blessing giving can be.  

The Midwives Who Feared God More Than Men

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Captain Kirk and Spock. Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro Sanchez. Thelma and Louise. Marlin and Dory. Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan. Han and Chewie. Woody and Buzz. Frodo and Sam.  

Shiphrah and Puah. 

No, these two women are not featured in a motion picture (at least not yet). However, if they were, it would simply be called, “The Midwives.” Although these two women have not been cast in a summer blockbuster, their story figures prominently as we consider our sermon series about ‘Sharing the Path.’ 

They share the path, alright. As outlaws. 

Go back in time with me to a place when God’s people had made a home for themselves in Egypt. For years, the Hebrews had been revered for their wise son’s stewardship and leadership during a terrible famine. The sons and daughters of Joseph had multiplied exponentially in the years following his death and they filled the land of the Egyptians. 

As the story in Exodus details, however, “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” (Exodus 1:8-10) 

Again, it bears repeating: The king dealt shrewdly with them. 

As a result, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. They forced them to build cities and to do their bidding. “But, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.” (Exodus 1:12-13).  

Enter Shiphrah and Puah.  

Ever-frustrated by the over-abundant Hebrews, the King sent for these two Hebrew midwives. He told them, “When you help the Hebrew women in child birth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” (Exodus 1:15-16)  

Infanticide, horrifically, makes frequent appearances in history. We may recall that Herod once ordered the deaths of all the boys in Bethlehem, two years of age and younger. Jesus narrowly escaped (ironically) to Egypt with Mary and Joseph.  

Herod's shrewd thinking is truly cunning. Children are vulnerable and won’t fight back. Easier to nip them in the bud before they blossom into legitimate threats--or so the thinking went among the Pharaohs and the Herods of the world.  

“The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:8). 

The women feared God. They feared their Maker and did not do what the king had directed. In words later echoed by Peter in Acts 5:29, these women concluded that they “must obey God rather than men.”  

What courage this must have required! What pluck! These two women had conspired together, at the risk of their lives, to disobey the king in order to save the Hebrew boys.  

The king was none too pleased to learn that his plan had been thwarted. “Why have you done this?” he demanded to know. “Why have you let the boys live?”  

The midwives answered, and I quote their clever scheming: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before we (the midwives) arrive.” (Exodus 1:19) 

Ah, Shiphrah and Puah. Not only are they faithful and brave, they too are wickedly clever, as well. “Hebrew women are strong. They give birth before we can get there. Thus, we cannot kill their children before they take their first breaths.”  

“So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God (it’s mentioned twice in the text!), he gave them families of their own.” (Exodus 1:21) 

Do you have a friend like Shiphrah and Puah? If not, you’d best find one. Each of us needs a friend who will help us to be brave and to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We need friends to help us remember that we should be fearful of God and not man.  

Thank God for the Shiphrah and Puahs of the world. May we be found to be as shrewd and courageous as they.  

What to Do When the Mission Field Fills Your Church

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Some years ago, I served as a youth minister. As I came to learn, working with children and adolescents can be quite the education. Young people demand that we get to the point quickly, and that we make the message accessible and authentic. 

But what I most remember about my youth ministry days was how effective young people are at teaching. And by teaching, I mean teaching me. 

If I recall correctly, we were sprawled out in a circle on the floor of the youth room when I shared the old familiar story about Hannah’s son Samuel and how he became Israel’s prophet par excellence.  

“What does God want us to learn from this story,” I asked the youth. 

A middle-schooler perked up, “You mean besides the fact that we should have more lock-ins? Didn’t you say something about this kid sleeping in the sanctuary of God?”  

I sighed. “Yes, besides the fact that we should have more lock-ins. What is God trying to tell us in this story?” 

A skeptical teenage girl caught me off guard with her observation. 

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “Hannah gave her son to God?” 

“Yes. She dedicated her son, Samuel, to God.” 

“My parents haven’t dedicated me to anything,” she said soberly.  

After a few moments of silence, a high school guy spoke up and said, “I think it’s cool that Samuel had someone to go to when he had a question—when he didn’t know what was going on.”  

A few others nodded in quiet agreement.  

A high school senior then spoke up with a question that sounded much more like a statement. “It was the priest, Eli, that taught him how to listen for God’s voice, wasn’t it?”  

“Yes, it was,” I confirmed. “He taught Samuel how to hear God’s voice and then instructed him to respond to God by saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  

The senior held my gaze for a moment, and then said simply, “Yea. I like that.” 

“I do, too,” I said. “I do, too.” 

This past Sunday our youth led us in worship. Just as it was true during Samuel’s time, God has something to say to us today. Under the leadership of Carol Cloer, our youth have been listening for God’s voice these last weeks in Sunday School and on Wednesday evenings. Their leadership on Sunday helped reveal that God was speaking to us through them.  

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” 

Are we? Can we say with confidence that we are listening for God’s Word? The story about Samuel and Eli opens with the revelation that, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I don’t believe for one moment that this is a reflection of God’s absence but is rather an indictment on His people. Apparently, they had a hearing problem.  

And God had something to say to them about it. If memory serves correctly, God took Eli’s sons to task for their evil ways.  

God has something to say to us, and I for one am grateful that He frequently speaks through the youngest among us. I pray that we will be receptive to the message that he sends us through our youth. 

There are ways that we can be like Eli and help shape the faith of our young people. True, our church has employed college students and young people to help teach the faith to dozens of children in our community in After School and in our upcoming summer camp. Yes, both Carol and I will be teaching these Bible stories to the children throughout the weeks they are in camp, but more needs to be done to equip our children to recognize God’s voice and to respond to His invitation to follow Jesus.  

And this is where our entire church can be like Eli. 

This summer, I would like to challenge you to play a role in the mission and ministry that we will offer to our community. There are three levels of engagement that you can choose from: 

1.) Invite your Sunday School class, Circle, or gang of ramp builders to adopt a class of summer camp kids. Ask Kelly how your group of friends can support and encourage these children and their families. 

2.) Tell Kelly that you’re able to commit to volunteering during the Bible story time, or during art or recreation. Learn the children’s names. Take a moment to piggyback on the lesson that Carol and I teach each day. Tell the college student staff member that you’d like to share your testimony with the class one day. 

3.) Arrange to visit and hang out at the conclusion of the day when parents linger for a few minutes of conversation while their kids take their last crack at the tire swing. Introduce yourself. Tell them how glad you are that they are a part of our community and our church’s summer ministry. Go further and make the connection between that parent and the child you helped to paint earlier in the day. Tell that parent how you heard their child make such an astute observation during the Bible story time. Share with that parent how their child taught you about God’s love.  

For years, churches would take mission trips where we would round up children in Backyard Bible Schools to teach them about Jesus. Hear the Good News, brothers and sisters! The children that we used to have to go and find are coming to us! 

To put it simply, the story means that it’s our turn to be Eli. It’s our turn to teach children and youth how to recognize God’s voice and to respond to his Word.  

It’s summer, y’all. And because of God’s rich blessings, our community will be coming to us. They will be worshipping in our Mission and Fellowship Center. They will be learning Bible Stories in our sanctuary. They will be building relationships in our church’s classrooms. In truth, they will be spending more time in our church than we will.  

It certainly would be a shame for God to speak through these children and we’re not at church to hear it.  

Don’t just pick one option on engagement, First Baptist. Pick all three.  

Act Now to Preserve Your Life

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“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Jesus in Matthew 7:24

It’s as though Jesus knows what we are thinking. After hearing his Sermon on the Mount, many of us are not so sure that we are willing to walk down the new path that he is bushwhacking.

Jesus’s teachings are hard. They are impractical. They demand sacrifice and a radical sense of trust. His teachings lay the groundwork for a new ethic; a new way of being in relationship with one another. In direct and prophetic rhetoric, Jesus is telling us that he expects his followers to live in a new kingdom, even while they are immersed in occupied lands. And it all feels near-to-impossible.

Can we still say we like Jesus without doing what he says?

This familiar passage about building a house on a strong foundation signals the end of Jesus’s famous teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Like the teaching that immediately precedes this one about false prophets, the image serves as a warning to his listeners.

First, Jesus tells his listeners to beware of leaders who will seek to dilute his words and to use faith as a means to advance their own agendas.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Jesus in Matthew 7:15

We are to look at the fruits of their efforts to determine if they are true emissaries of Jesus. And if they are not representatives of the Kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating, never fear. They will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Again, Jesus in Matthew 7:19)

Subtle, Jesus is not.

Next, Jesus implores his listeners to take seriously his teachings and to put them to work in their lives. Those who choose to take Jesus seriously here and follow his commands will build a life for themselves that will weather the storms that this world throws at them.

As if that’s not clear enough, Jesus puts an exclamation point on his statement by reporting that, “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (You guessed it. Jesus’s words from Matthew 7:26-27)

It’s not enough to simply hear Jesus’s words. It’s not enough to simply call Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord.’ One must act on Jesus’s teachings. In doing so, our lives will bear fruit. But even more than that, in doing what Jesus commands we will wisely position ourselves for life.

Last night, amidst the heavy rain and flooding in our region, I saw this alert from the National Weather Service out of Greenville, SC:

“MCDOWELL COUNTY UPDATE: A landslide has comprised the integrity of Lake Tahoma Dam. MANDATORY EVACUATIONS underway. ACT NOW TO PRESERVE YOUR LIFE.”

Jesus never promises us that the rain won’t fall and that the water won’t rise. He tells us plainly, however, that when the rain does fall, those who have obeyed Jesus’s commandments will be preserved.

Is there a dam in your life that’s about to burst? Are you experiencing a season of terrible wind and rain? It’s not too late to take Jesus’s words and teachings seriously.

Act now to preserve your life.