When Life Gets Messy, God Gives Mercy

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(Image courtesy of changingthetide.org)

(Image courtesy of changingthetide.org)

I have not posted over the weekend.  Life got messy, really messy really fast.  My grandmother, who is in her eighties, is nearing the end of her life, and her family is having to confront end of life issues, such as how long do you continue extraordinary measures to sustain life?  And what kind of existence does she have if we continue them?  None of those questions are easy, and all of them have become necessary in the span of a couple of days.  So there has been a lot of wrestling internally and externally in my family.   No one wants my grandmother to die, but everyone will die eventually.  So those two realities duel in the arena shaped by her current state of progressive illness and total loss of cognitive function.  It leaves us wondering, where is God in all this?  I know God is here, with us and for us, but with all the rapidly changing circumstances, I have to pause to see where I can sense God at work.  When I did, I was astonished to see all the ways and means God was being merciful and good to us, even my grandmother.

In a world where people get sick and death can be staved off almost indefinitely, more and more we are empowered with some control over the life and death of our loved ones.  There was a time when we did not keep people alive with heat blankets, hydration IVs, and food pegs when they could no longer chew and swallow food.  Now we have to decide when to withdrawal those things, and wrestle with the real impact they will have.  I constantly ask myself where we are being merciful, and where we are being stubborn.  Sometimes they look and feel the same, and other times they are far removed from one another.  Then it struck me that God was very present in our conversations that centered around honoring our beloved matriarch, ensuring that she did not suffer just to prolong her time on earth even if she was not cognitively able to appreciate it.  This good Christian woman spent her life in the labor of love, and she deserves to rest from those labors, rest in God, and suffer no more.  Yes, we will suffer for a while when she is gone, but illness robbed us of her in many ways years ago.  In death, she shall be restored in a way that medical science can never hope to achieve.  God can and will do what we cannot.  To abide in the peace and love that is the Lord until the day of Resurrection must surely be one of the greatest experiences a person can ever have.  It is a place where there is no pain, suffering, sorrow, or mourning.  While I would never actively kill my grandmother, not even in the name of mercy, I do not wish to keep her from that rest in God any longer.

My memories of her from a time before the dementia and physical illness are strong, and filled with gratitude to God.  I got to have this amazing woman in my life for decades, and her impact will outlive her mortal form.  God is merciful to let us have memories as a salve on our wounds of mourning, and as a means of keeping their legacy alive when they pass from this life.  Those memories motivate me to live as she lived, to model my faith in the way I treat others with kindness and dignity, and to speak openly and honestly about my love for and belief in Christ Jesus.  God was merciful to grant her to this world, and I benefited from that, and now others should benefit from that relationship, too.  As my weekend became overwhelmed with decisions, discussions, gut wrenching realities, and sorrowful good byes, I found God merciful in the presence of my family, the ability to speak openly and honestly with one another, and the promise of reunion at the Resurrection.  I have no doubt that my grandmother will be counted among the sheep.  By the grace of God, I pray that I will be, too, and we will be together in the Kingdom come.  For now, as this drama we call death plays out, I cling to the hope of Christ and the salvation from eternal death in the cross.  I hear God in the comforting words of others, and the assuring presence of my loved ones.  I see God at work in the great serendipity that emerges when we don’t have to make some painful decisions because nature makes some for us.  There is mercy all around us, and it flows forth through miraculous means and willing vessels from God in heaven.  When things get messy, I can say with great conviction and all honestly that God responds with mercy.  My response should be to react to any and every mess likewise.

Visions will Actualize

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“The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, what is this proverb of yours about the land of Israel, which says, ‘The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing’?  Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall use it no more as a proverb in Israel.’  But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision” (Ezekiel 12:21-23 NRV).


(Image courtesy of cs.brown.edu)

(Image courtesy of cs.brown.edu)

Being in relationship with God means opening ourselves up to the visions God places in our minds, and upon our hearts.  Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means focusing our eyes upon the shared vision we are all called to actualize in his name.  Bringing about a vision in community is far more difficult than doing so in an individual life, but Christ is insistent that we work together, serve together, and bring the Kingdom closer together.  When Jesus called those first twelve disciples to his side, and walked with them for three years, he showed them what it means to devote ourselves to something vastly different from what we would ever have dreamed for ourselves.  He helped them live lives that were about devotion to a vision where people found a whole new way of being, which revolved around being together in this journey.  As the Church, we are not just hanging out together for worship; we are drawing closer and knitting ourselves together so that the vision God places in one can not only be shared with the many, but achieved through the pooling of the gifts and graces of all.

God does not just give visions of a future where justice rolls down the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream to paint pretty mental pictures.  God has expectations that this will be accomplished and we will all do our part individually so the collective may succeed.  What that success looks like for each community of faith is different, because they are not all cookie cutter versions of one another, but they are all called to the same degree of commitment and willingness to go out into deep, uncharted waters and let down their nets.  So why do we cling to the shore line?  Why do we reject the visions of others as being anything but the will of God?  We have a responsibility to God and one another to prayerfully discern each vision placed before us, and honor the truth spoken from every person.  It is possible for a Christian to see a vision that is vital to the growth of their church, and when someone revealed a vision to my church almost two years ago, we all wanted to write it off.  It seemed crazy, but we were faithful to the process of discernment.  Over time, we came to realize that this idea that seemed insane at first, might actually be a great success because of who we are and what we have to offer.  But envisioning is a painful process that is filled with the possibility of change and great risk financially, personally, and spiritually.  Yet every risk Christ asked his disciples to take was worth it.  It furthered the emergence of the Kingdom of God and brought the lost closer to discovering their rightful place in the Body of Christ.  That is the mantle modern Christians have laid upon their shoulders.  We must take our place in the envisioning and actualizing process, so that our faith will have crucial change in our churches, our communities, and around the world.  The name of Christ not only relies on it, but rests upon it.  Not for our glory, but his.

Prayer:

Christ, our sovereign Lord and gracious God,

Help us to trust in you and your mysterious ways.

When we feel the urge to run away from your visions for us,

Still our feet, and bring us to our knees in prayer.

Teach us to submit ourselves to you;

To subvert our will for the good of the Kingdom.

May we discover what you would have us do,

And simultaneously fulfill who we are called to be.

Let no obstacle prevent us from achieving your will,

Until all people gather at your feet to praise your name,

And accept your grace.

For your honor and glory,

Always and everywhere.

Amen.

Sanctification Rejects the Status Quo

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(Image courtesy of jrforasteros.com)

(Image courtesy of jrforasteros.com)

Humanity’s state of sin…

Our brokenness…

Being outwardly obsessed, but inwardly blind…

Failing to hear the cry of the needy…

Ignoring the voice crying out from the wilderness…

Judgment that condemns…

Perpetuating evil…

Refusing to let grace penetrate…

Inequality and injustice…

Becoming numb to suffering of others…

Rejecting reconciliation…

For all these things, God came to us.  God has been working tirelessly to transform us, granting grace at every turn.  While we turn away to seek what feels good and grants instant gratification, Christ calls us back to the well of life, to find the fullness that only the Lord can provide.  Sanctification, the process of being made holy by the work of God’s grace and the movement of the Holy Spirit, rejects the way things are, because they do not fully reflect the glory of God and the love of God for all people.  Sanctification seeks to go on to perfection in love, growing beyond the here and now.  It is the means by which God changes the world by first changing the people who dwell upon it.  There is so much more to discover in God’s will for us, and so much more to become to others, for them.  We cannot stop and declare that we are done, that we have gone as far as we are willing to go.  Never at any point did Jesus Christ stop on the way to Golgotha.  He took that cross all the way up the hill and to the end of his own life, to pay the debt we incur with our sin.  So we cannot throw up our hands and walk away, content with what is right now, because no matter how good it is, it is not the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

So when the days come and we are discouraged, dejected, and downright exhausted from the labor of love, we can stop to rest, but not resign.  If God had taken that stance with us, then we would still dwell in darkness, and evil would consume us in pain and suffering even more overwhelming than it is in its current state.  We can recognize our weakness and our ineffectiveness, but then we turn ourselves over to the only power capable of transforming sin from an eternal death sentence into the gateway to grace.  We must entrust ourselves into this process that is bigger than ourselves, this transforming relationship with God that drives us deeper in faith and discipleship.  To be made holy is the greatest honor, for it is to reflect God outwardly while embodying God inwardly.  Who are we that we should be granted such an honor?  We are those loved beyond human reason, and those valued beyond material worth.  We are those that God looks upon and sees beyond our sin, deeper than our depravity.  God sees potential, and then moves to make it emerge, until one day we open our eyes and wonder how we ever became something capable of being a vessel of love, a means of grace to others.  But that can and will only happen when we reject the way things are to yearn for what might be, and then journey forward, following the light of Christ into uncharted territory in order to actualize it.  Sanctification is to leave the status quo behind, and enact the will of the one who hears the cries, sees the suffering, and refuses to let them continue.  If that is God’s way, then it must become ours, too.  That is what sanctification is all about.

Reactive Love

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(Image courtesy of juliasmath.com)

(Image courtesy of juliasmath.com)

I was awakened a little past 1:00 AM.  The first time I heard it, my body awakened before my mind could comprehend.  The second time I heard it, I was up out of bed in a flash.  I heard a young child screaming, but I was aware that it was not my son.  Just to be sure, I rushed across the hall and into his room, but he was fast asleep.  Through the open window in his room, I felt a soft, cool breeze, and then I heard the child scream again.  I quickly left my son’s room and closed the door before heading downstairs.  I opened the front door and stood on my front porch trying to discern from where the cries were coming.  It was down the street, and I was pretty sure they were coming from within a house.  I stood there wondering what I should do.  Should I go and try to find the child, making sure they are not somehow outside?  Should I call the police and alert them that there may be a child in distress?  It never occurred to me that I should just ignore it.

I could chalk it up to parental response, maternal instinct, etc., but I think my overwhelming desire to help that crying child was more about my faith than anything else.  While being awakened by distant cries of a child might have come from recently honed skills with my own son, my refusal to roll over and let it be someone else’s problem is the natural response to the love of Christ for all people.  Someone in pain and distress is my problem, because it is our problem.  We are connected to one another through God, who created all people and yearns to have us draw closer to our Maker and each other.  The Christian cannot pretend that pain does not exist and that suffering is not an atrocity.  The disciple cannot stand by and allow it to go unheeded, but is compelled by the love of Christ and the urging of the Holy Spirit to respond.  Before I could step off my porch I heard the child stop screaming, as a female adult voice offered words of comfort, and the crying ceased.  As I made my way back to bed, I realized that I had been ready and willing to run out of my house in the middle of the night, shoe-less, and without hesitation to help someone else, because God sends us to be vessels of love, care, kindness, and comfort.  I think that many Christians feels this compulsion to respond, even as society tells us to mind our own business.  Yet we live in a world where terrible things happen with alarming regularity, and they happen to innocent children, too.

How could I ignore the distressed cries of a child when all the horrific possibilities were running through my head?  I pray that the people of God refuse to be silenced and stand down.  I hope that we will always rush to respond, and think of the social consequences second.  The ardent and instantaneous response of love in a disciple of Jesus Christ was intentionally cultivated by God for others, and we should unleash it upon them.  This is not about established etiquette boundaries, but doing our part to bring the comfort of God to all people, and actively work to ease the suffering of this world where sin permeates and kindness is mercy.  We are loved, and so we love.  God responded to our suffering in sin, and so we respond to the sufferings of others.  In this, real and tangible change is made, and the Kingdom shines brighter in the midst of the darkness.

My Struggle with Streaming

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Live streaming is growing in popularity in churches.  Some think it is necessary for growth and evangelism, but I am struggling with it.

(Image courtesy of newlifecm.com)

(Image courtesy of newlifecm.com)

It is not that I do not love technology or digital media, because I most certainly do.  It is not that I do not want to reach new people and engage them even before they walk into the door of the church, because that is the way of my generation and those after my own.  I worry about abuse, about sending mixed signals regarding worship.  Worship is when the people of God (two or more) gather together to give their best.  There is a lot of intentionality in worship, and it undergirds everything we do, from gathering to going forth with God’s blessing.  We should be offering our best, which means we are intentional about our prayers, how we sing, being ready to hear what God is saying to us as the Scriptures are read and illuminated, and even being dressed, present on time, and ready to go when worship begins.  I hear a lot of people talk about how they just could not get it together, and so they stayed home and watched worship live stream, and that is what they did: they watched.  We must be present together with God and each other to manifest the Body of Christ.  We need to be able to respond instantly to one another and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and watching makes us worship voyeurs, not partakers in each other.

Worship is more than a bunch of individuals gathering to offer their personal prayers and offerings, and get something personally from God Almighty.  It is to form a community with one sacred purpose and proclaim with our gathered presence the glory of God, the Father, testify to the salvation born of Jesus Christ, and be vessels of the Holy Spirit as it enables us to worship more fully.  I understand when faithful members are forced to be separated from their beloved congregation on Sunday morning whether from work, illness, or travel, and desire to be connected.  They do not want to miss the sermon, the sacred music, or any other aspect of their church’s corporate worship.  My concern is when that becomes a crutch, a viable alternative in the minds of people to stay home, to not be so intentional about being present.  I worry that live streaming might become a stumbling block to some, and just one is too many as the Apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 8:9).  Even Jesus has something to say about our contributing to the waywardness of others:

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!’” (Luke 17:1 NRS).

I have not resigned myself against live streaming, but I think my struggle is clear.  As someone who is called to lead God’s people in our worship together, I want to do what is right by God, the Body of Christ, and those who have not yet taken their rightful place in our midst.  If you had the option of live streaming, how would you use it?  Would it become a stumbling block to you, crutch in your mind that allowed you to stay home, or would you resolve to use it as a companion in this spiritual path we walk?  I would love to hear your reflections and conclusions to help me make my own.

A Prayer to be Vessels of Edification

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(Image courtesy of lccdefenders.org)

(Image courtesy of lccdefenders.org)

Christ, the foundation of our faith,

The cornerstone of Christendom,

Rebuild your Church from the inside.

Reshape us, molding us into those who serve first,

And are edified in our service.

Teach us your ways of building up others.

Forgive us when our words tear down,

When we are quick to berate.

Grant us your grace to grow and discover our place,

Upholding your Gospel of truth and love.

Eradicate our sinful desire for our own glory,

So that we can more fully give glory to you.

May others come to know your transforming love through us,

And discover that all are invited to embrace this grace.

Until the entire earth rings with your praise,

We will plow the fields and search out the lost of your flock.

Give us the perseverance to stay the course.

All honor for your mighty acts and to your sacred name.

Amen.

Widening Worship

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Sometimes we have a painfully narrow understanding of what worship is and how we fit into it.  Worship is to honor and glorify a God so far beyond our full understanding that God had to reveal God’s self to us in the three persons of the Trinity.  God is too big to fit into a box, and our worship is too vital to hem in.  While worship is corporate, I acknowledge that it is simultaneously deeply personal.  It is an outward sign of this inward relationship with our Lord, and one that is transforming us even as we offer thanks for what we have been given thus far.  So how can we widen our concept of worship?

(Image courtesy of pqhobbit.wordpress.com)

(Image courtesy of pqhobbit.wordpress.com)

More and more I watch and observe how worship affects people gathered  I see when they are bored, disconnected, and counting the minutes until they are out the door.  Then I see people when they are struck with the power and movement of the Holy Spirit, when they feel the manifestation of Christ in our midst, and when they are overwhelmed by the presence of the Father.  I see tears, sometimes smiles, and always this gasp for the grace of knowing that God is true, alive, and with them.  That is what I want to see for all people, all the time in worship.  To this end I am working planning a new fully Emergent worship service, the third service we will offer on Sunday morning.  Not that our other two worship services are not a means of grace, a good and joyful thing, and meeting the needs of a multitude of Christians to worship God Almighty, they are.  However, my church could no longer deny that there were people missing, absent from this sacred encounter with God and other believers.  We could not stand by and allow that chasm to continue, much less grow deeper and more detrimental.  So we prayed, discerned, holy conferenced, and moved to make something new a reality in concert with God.  Out of that journey this new worship service has been conceived, and next month it will be birthed.  When it is enlivened it will need the people to open themselves in a whole new way, experiencing holiness like it is the first time.  It will require us to put aside our wants and desires in selflessness so that others may draw close.  If we widen our willingness to go where we are not “at home” and fully comfortable, then those who are not that way now can discover a profound love that willingly goes without so others may have, even for the very first time.

It is an act of kindness to place others before us, and the fullness of the Body of Christ above us.  It is an act of mercy to strive to open space, create sanctuary, and make room for worship strangers.  Without worship, believers would wander away, go stagnant in their faith, and fail to find a richer, deeper understanding of the God whom we gather to worship in the first place.  We can no longer deny that to anyone because they cannot relate to our preferred style of worship.  The world offers too many alternatives to worshiping God, and it makes it very easy and enjoyable to pursue them.  The time has come for Christendom to acknowledge this unhappy truth, and work actively, intentionally to change our mindset, our mode of worship, and get vulnerable enough to change, so that Christ may transform others into disciples who will worship and serve alongside us, and grow in their walk with the Lord with us, too.