Posts tagged ‘death’

January 8, 2014

God Smiling

I am not one to throw around religious cliques. It irritates me in fact when folks in positions of religious leadership use such statements as “Everything happens for a reason” or “I guess God needed an angel” or “God helps those who help themselves.”

Gross, really.

But I am reconsidering my use of the phrase “___ (loved one) must be smiling down on you now” after the miracle that came to this earth four days ago.image

My most long-term sister friend, Kristina was on baby watch on bed rest with her second cutie until early Monday morning. Her water broke and I got a text message before 6 am that  said, “I think we are having a baby today!”

Such would be exciting enough but then there was consideration of the date on the calendar itself, January 6th . . . a date that caused all of us waiting on this birth to pause in awe.

Nine years ago on January 6th (long before the days of texting) I got a phone call from Kristina– the kind of phone call NO ONE wants to get. “We’ve lost Daddy,” she said in between sobs.

Though only a few days earlier joy burst into this household as Kristina had gotten engaged to Richard, a car accident changed everything for her, her mother, two brothers and in a matter of seconds. The joy of wedding planning was no more. Her daddy’s heart stopped beating. The rock of their family was gone.

Over these past nine years so much healing has taken place. Weddings have occurred. Babies have been born. Kristina’s mom even got re-married. (And I was the wedding minister!)

But the fact that the dad, Larry never got to see or touch or hold any of his grand babies brought forth ache. (There are five of them now!) He was a great dad. He would have been an even more amazing granddad. I could just see the vision of Larry bouncing several of them on his knee and making up some silly song as he did it. Or baking chocolate chip cookies and sneaking an extra one to his oldest grandson. Or playing hide and go seek in his wooded backyard for hours on end.

image So when, January 6th came– the awful anniversary day that all of us have on our calendars– and Kristina was in labor with baby girl, it was hard not to say that Larry had some role in the whole thing.

Somewhere up from the world beyond he was smiling and asking God to help him show up in this special way as Xara Elgie Rose came into the world.

And what a beautiful day it was and a beautiful baby she is.

I am thankful to God for the thin places in this world that remind us that we are more than just bodies, but souls that live on through eternity with connection to the ultimate Creator.

I am thankful for the sweetness of friendship that I have with this family and the joy that is my new niece, Xara.

But most of all I am thankful for Larry and the knowing that his legacy lives on in Xara and the rest of the family.

August 12, 2013

I Want to Know Christ

I Want to Know Christ
Philippians 3:7-11
Preached: August 11, 2013, Martin Luther King Christian Church, Reston, VA

I always knew when I was younger that one day I’d want to be married. I would want to have a life partner—someone in whom I could share in all of life’s most memorable moments with and one day grow old beside.

By my teenaged years, I had expectations on how this might happen—mostly coming from the stories I’d heard from how my parents met.

From the time that I was small, when my sister and I would ask my mom about how she met my dad, she’d tell us about the day that she stood in registration line on her first day at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. As she waited her turn to sign up for her classes, her last name was Duncan and my father to-be was Evans, so naturally they found themselves in the same line—the D-E’s. And there they struck up a conversation and the beginnings of a friendship that led to a marriage began.

So, I too thought if I wanted to get married, all I’d have to do was go to college. And there on the first week would I meet the man who would make me his Mrs.

I’d arrive at college and bam! I’d walk on campus and say “Hello fine young men!” And, he’d be there.

Well— you can imagine how great this “bright” plan of mine worked out!

I was shy at the time and really didn’t like going out of my comfort zone of who invited me to tag along with them. I saturated myself in an all-girlfriend kind of community—eating, studying and going to the movies with girlfriends, not boys. I guess it kept me out of trouble, but that was about it.

Even still, I thought without any work, effort or sacrifice Mr. Right would make himself known to me: the man I most wanted to know and marry one day. In my head, I imagined he’d just knock on my door one day, introduce himself, we’d date and then we could just get on with our really happy lives.

Yes, I said I wanted to be in a relationship. But, no, I didn’t try to get to know any new young men.

Well—you know how that went. I didn’t really date anyone for the next four years.

When many of us think of our relationship with Christ, we approach it in a similar way that I did with dating in college. We say that we want to grow.

We say that we want to have a relationship with Christ that is vibrant.

But, we get stuck.

We get stuck in a version of faith that closely models what we were taught in children’s Sunday School back in 2nd grade children’s church.

We get stuck on the faith we observed in our grandparents but never truly made our own.

We get stuck when the most difficult life situations find us—throwing in all our cards and say, “Well, there must not really be a God. Because if there was a God this bad situation would not be happening to me!”

We get stuck even though most all of us understand this basic truth:

To be a Christian is to what? Follow Christ.

But we equate knowing Christ with church membership—showing up regularly on Sundays.

We equate knowing Christ with having hope of eternal life—resting on the fact that we know where we’ll go one day when we die.

We equate knowing Christ with doing unto others as we would have it done unto us—being a good person because that is how Jesus showed us to live when he was on earth.

And, while all of this is well and good and there’s noting wrong with any of these things, faith of that depends only on these sort of things becomes a sideline only type of faith. Yes, we say with our lips that we are a Christian but there’s no movement in our lives toward the direction of who Jesus actually was.

We say we are following Jesus but our life looks nothing like His did.

The apostle Paul has a few words to share with us about this found in his letter to the Philippian church. It’s a book of Paul clearly laying his feelings about how much this congregation meant to him and what he wanted Christ to be in his life.

It’s a book that Paul wrote from jail—during what was most likely the end of his life, a time when we was saying the things that he most wanted to say.

In fact, scholars feel that the book of Philippians is in fact that the book the one they are most sure that Paul wrote by hand. Put simply, Philippians is Paul’s heart put to paper.

And within this context we hear the Apostle Paul say, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” And then he goes on to say in verse 10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death.”

These are familiar words. If we’ve been around church awhile, we’ve heard them a lot. We may just gloss over them with our ears thinking we understand already what they mean. Following Jesus is about death and resurrection . . . Ok, preacher, I’ve got that.

But pause with me for a moment.

Paul is elevating the supremacy of Christ by saying “whatever was to his profit (as we know from his life story that he used to be a very righteous law-abiding Jew), he now considers loss for the sake of Christ.”

But not only this, Paul says that he wants to know Christ in two particular ways.

The first is that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. And the second, is that Paul wants the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.

(Have congregation REPEAT).

Do you hear what we just said?

Paul says to know Christ is not what most of us think knowing Christ is about.

I heard nothing about joining a church. I heard nothing about having correct theology. I heard nothing about reading the Bible and praying so many hours a week. Or any sort of easy or straight forward task that any of us could just snap our fingers and achieve.

Paul says, “I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection” and “ I want the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

I’ve been struck by the simplicity and the profound nature of these two qualifiers over the past couple of weeks.

Paul tells us it is only about two things: resurrection and suffering. But, these aren’t small things . . .

Let’s start with resurrection. Resurrection is the word that most of us associate with the Easter season, isn’t it?

On Easter Sunday morning we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose” and we talk about how almost and amazing it is that Christ defeated the powers of sin and death and so we too can live forever more. It’s a happy day isn’t it? Full of bright flower dresses and new hats and lots of joy . . .

So following Jesus about resurrection—that might sound easy enough, right? We just have to show up in our Sunday best! Huh? Wrong!

Do we not remember all the stories that followed that bright Easter morning?

The stories of the men afraid in their scandals hiding in the upper room not believing the news that the women brought them about the empty tomb.

The stories of women like Mary finding Jesus in the garden outside the tomb holding so tightly on to Jesus that Jesus had to reprimand her saying: “Don’t cling to me.”

The stories of the disciples like Peter, filled with shame and grief having to have a conversation over and over again with Jesus about what he needed to do going forward at the seashore.

Resurrection is not about instant beauty or perfect circumstances. Resurrection is a process. Resurrection is a slow transformative process.

And while yes, resurrection is about new life and hope; its birth is not an easy process. Resurrection rattles of the foundations of what is normal, what is comfortable and most certainly what we might have expected before it comes.

It’s the power that dismantles every other power in our life that controls us, keeps us in bondage, or has any pull at all over our lives.

To want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection is much like a story that author Annie Dillard tells.

When speaking of the resurrection power of our Lord, she gives this advice:

“It is madness [for} ladies’ [to wear] straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. [Instead of passing out bulletins,] Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
To say that you want to know Christ is to be ready for resurrection power to shake your life upside down.

And in the same way, Paul also says that he wants to share in the fellowship of his Christ’s sufferings. To know Christ is to know Christ’s sufferings.

Sufferings . . . if you are like me, it’s never good when a sentence starts with this word is it? I hate suffering, what about you?

Suffering involves change not only in the way that resurrection is about change, but it is about pain and how pain changes us. Blood, sweat and tears as the saying goes. . . .

To know Christ, Paul says, we have to be ready to suffer.

To follow Christ is not to sign up for a ticket to life happiness (as some tv preachers—you know who they are might tell you) but it is to accept that in life, no matter how good we think we are, difficult situations are going to find us.

And in fact, the particular the MORE we begin to align our lives in the direction of Christ’s teachings, then the more we are going to get push back from the world.

It is as if Paul is saying, start following Christ and then get ready, because pain is going to come!

It’s going to be pain you or I didn’t ask for, didn’t make happen, or even is not the fault of our poor choices.

May I just take liberty to say that following Jesus sometimes means somebody is going to tell lies about us, somebody whom we love might leave us, or maybe even one day we are going to wake up and realize that our life has to take a completely different life path with some really hard choices.

And it’s going to hurt!

Even more so, people might just steal our clothes, spit on us, speak all kinds of ill against us, and our stands for Jesus might even cost us our very lives. If it happened to Jesus, then why do we think it won’t happen to us?

Suffering is just part of the commitment.

I ask you church, do you still want to know Christ?

I began my sermon with this morning telling you that as a child I dreamed of getting married one day.

Well when I was in seminary, God answer such a prayer and brought into my life an amazing life partner named Kevin Hagan who would be God’s instrument of love, challenge and encouragement to me for all that lied ahead.

And all was well and great and all—you know things were going fine. A year and a half ago, Kevin was working on the leadership team of a non-profit in Alexandria and I was happy over there at Washington Plaza—until Kevin got a call one day that would lead to another call and then a visit and then another visit where he would be named the President of Feed The Children that just so happened to be in Oklahoma.

And you can imagine as excited as I was for this opportunity for Kevin, how I felt about that—Oklahoma.

I told Kevin, “They don’t like my kind of outspoken female pastor-ness out there.” His optimist self said, “Give it a try.”

And now after I’ve been out there part-time for 6 months I can say indeed my assumptions were right. They don’t like my kind. And Oklahoma is a 22 hour drive away from here. It can feel very lonely. And there have been many tears in our household as much as there have been celebratory moments of all the new experiences.

We have to be careful what we pray for.

Sometimes God’s biggest blessings to us can also come with pain. Sometimes God’s biggest blessings can involve resurrection that forces our world-view upside down.

And it is a process.

Notice with me that Paul said, “I want to know Christ.”

NOT, “I know Christ” or “I know Christ already.”

Paul is exhorting us by example to A PROCESS of knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.

Even for Paul it was never something he achieved or arrived at, it was about a relationship of wanting to know Christ more every day.

The last time I did a class preparing persons for baptism. I started the session by asking them if they were ready to die? “Have you lost your mind, Pastor?” their eyes said back to me in response.

And no, it wasn’t some sort of “hell fire and brimstone” are you sure you are saved sort of line of questioning. And no I had not lost my mind. I was serious. Were they ready to die?

Because as baptized believers who are desiring to know Christ, what we believe being immersed under the water and then coming back up symbolize the fact that we are dying to ourselves and being raised to a new kind of life.

The Christian life—at least as the Apostle Paul saw it was about death to our normal human experience. It was about the power of resurrection and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.

So I ask you church today, do you want to know Christ?

Do you want to walk in Jesus’ footsteps?

If you answer is yes, then I say, hold on for the ride of your life—for it will be a journey filled with the power of the resurrection AND the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

For those who commit afresh today to this way of dying to self and living for Christ, let the church say (AMEN).

April 22, 2013

Feeling Out of Sorts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be out of step or out of sorts with the rest of your community.

Maybe it is because the tragedies of last week in Boston and in Waco, TX still lay heavy on so many of our hearts. Though the news cycle will soon move on– for these folks in the throes of grief the journey will be a long one.

Maybe it is because for me personally, this “Sabbatical” has gone on longer than I would have liked. And I’m thinking these days a lot about what it means to be “useful.” I often feel like I’m just not.

Maybe it is because I’ve recently journeyed with friends through the abuse of workplace authority, church doctrines that hurt instead of providing hope, and endless days of feeling life is simply not going to get better anytime soon. Heavy stuff for sure.

I tried to pull together some of my thoughts on all of this last week in piece that the Associated Baptist Press ran called, “Out of Season.” In it, I stayed close to the “feeling out of sort” feeling that happens often in community life, in particular in churches. It’s Easter and we’re not joyful. It’s Christmas and we don’t feel like giving gifts. It’s Good Friday and we feel like shouting with happiness. How do we relate to one another then? I think such is a discussion that we have to keep having in our faith communities.

In the meantime, as I sort through my own life, all I know is that grief takes time. Life transitions take time. Sometimes as hard as we try, we just aren’t going to be in the emotional or spiritual place as everyone else. Thank goodness then for grace that finds us even on days when we are simply “out of sorts.”

November 1, 2012

Sorrow and Joy

Last weekend, I experienced a moment when I knew I’d seen a family walk through the fullness of “it was the worst of times and it was the best of times.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it is that we move through life when really bad things happen and also the good too. How do we cope when we are going through hell and those around us are in the peak of joy (and vice versa). I recently mused about it here and was able to spend some time in a Bible study with a group of women talking about this very thing last week (shout out to the Signal Mountain ladies). It’s a difficult topic to be honest about, to wrestle with and to really know what to do with for sure! But then sometimes life just hits you and you must deal with it, no matter if you want to or not.

During my first year of seminary, in mid-January, I got the call from my best friend, Kristina– the kind of call that you never want to receive. “Daddy’s been in accident. He didn’t make it.”

Kristina’s father wasn’t just any person in my life– he was a dear friend, a kind man who welcomed me warmly into his family gatherings, vacations and always ready with a good prank or joke. He never took life too seriously and was the type of father you knew would one day turn into a wonderful grandfather when his three kids got around to having their own. But on that cold January night he was gone. And, we were all in shock. It just wasn’t right. He should have lived to see so much more.

After hearing the news, I caught the first plane out-of-town to be with my friend and her family. For several days. Kristina’s parents’ house was now full of loved ones, flowers galore and food enough to feed a southern army. When it came time to sleep the night before the funeral, I asked where I should go. Kristina had joined her mom in the king sized bed in her room, now cold with grief and loss. Her mom said quickly:”You can sleep in the room with us, Elizabeth.” And so I made a pallet on the floor next to these two grieving ones. I was glad to be close.

The next morning, Kristina, her mom and I got ready together in the adjoining bathroom for the funeral. Kristina’s mom had always called me “just another family member” so she said numerous times in between tears, “I’m so glad you are here.”

I sat with the family at the memorial service, next to Kristina’s fiance, Richard and her two brothers. We cried together rivers of tears. When all was said and done, I slept (or pretended to sleep) on the floor next to them the following evening. The three of us talked and talked and then sat in silence together for hours. We couldn’t believe he was really gone.

The three of us were together in grief that day. I will always remember.

Then, last Saturday, the three of us gathered in a bedroom once again. This time, nearly 8 years later, we sat around in a bedroom for a completely different reason, though. A day of joy came. Kristina’s mom was getting married again. She was the matron of honor and I was the minister. And a new man was in the room with us– a man who would be her new husband, a kind and gentle and loving man, a wonderful addition to this already wonderful family.

As I watched Kristina help put on her mom’s white dress and make sure her hair was perfectly aligned and her necklace was on straight, I couldn’t help but have my mind go back to that moment when the three of us were in a bedroom together many years ago.

As we tried to make sure her white dress was tied up just right, I couldn’t help but remember dark cloud hanging over us years ago as each one of us asked in our own way: “Will life ever get better again?” But yet on this day, I saw this mom say with her bright smile: “Yes, it can. It really can. Life can be beautiful if you give it time.” Happiness can come, she declared to the world if you hang on to hope!

I am so glad that my circle of family has been cast wide and that I could experience both the sorrow and of joy of these moments with these dear ones. And what a testimony this weekend was for me– when life is rocky, just hang on. For just as bad times seek to destroy us, the good comes too! I’m glad I’m around to see what comes next– both the sorrow and the joy that will be.

July 23, 2012

The Church Gets it Right

Yesterday, Washington Plaza Baptist hosted a memorial service for the brother and brother in-law of two of our devoted church leaders, Mark. The congregation was almost full of those who came to pay their respects. It wasn’t full because everyone in the room had a relationship with the deceased or even had met Mark, but many people came out of love for the family. Mark suffered much from his battle with Huntington’s disease, a genetic condition and died at age 42.

Through weekly updates during Sunday prayers, our church community watched Mark’s family members care for their brother with love, faithfulness and steadfastness, even in the face of ongoing frustrations with the health care system in our state that often wanted to make him someone else’s problem as his functions declined. The journey had been a long one and we had been by their side all the way.

As I led the service and gazed out on the congregation, I could help but think that this is what happens when the church gets it right. We love in community. We live in community. We die in community.  And when one of us is hurting, all of us hurt too. Together we sit with side by side as we encounter some of life’s most difficult life junctures.

When we came to the portion of the service when it was time to share personal tributes, my two church members got up to read this litany about their beloved brother. I can’t tell you how proud I was– not only was it a beautiful, theologically rich responsive prayer, but I know it came from the hearts of two folks I know and love much. As their pastor I’ve seen their spiritual journeys unfold over the past two years at a rapid pace (having recently baptized them both) and I knew this moment of being surrounded by their church family was a tangible sign of what I”ve been teaching all this time. The church is so important in our lives because when life hands us the worst we can imagine, we get to be reminded that we are NEVER alone. God meets us in the hands and feet of others.

Those who endure the greatest suffering can become our greatest teachers. This was certainly a lesson, I believe, we all gained out of the memorial service yesterday. Every life is of value. Every life has gifts to share. Every life deserves to be celebrated.  The church gets it right when we teach, and love and nurture the faith into others. I was just glad to witness it yesterday!

Our brother: A sufferer and a teacher

Mark had a challenging life filled with many struggles and much pain

He taught us how to find humor and laughter in everything


Mark suffered from a genetic disease called Huntington’s

He showed us how to endure and survive and never give up


Mark fought to numb life’s constant pain with alcohol

He showed us strength renewal by joining Alcoholics Anonymous


Mark never cared about material possessions or money

He taught us how to be humble and enjoy the simple things in life


Mark was hit by a car as a child and had life altering surgery

He taught us once again how to have strength and survive


Mark never had any money, but freely gave of it

He taught us the true meaning of generosity and compassion


Mark was easy to please and loved doing puzzles and playing cards

He taught us to enjoy the simple things in life


Mark had a debilitating motorcycle accident as an adult

He taught us once again to fight for life and never give up


People took advantage of Mark at times

Mark taught us forgiveness and to trust like a child


Mark had innocent eyes and a childlike stare

He taught us how to see truth and honesty and love


Mark had a very strong work ethic

Mark taught us the meaning of honor and character


Mark gave his last pack of cigarettes to a homeless person

He taught us how to always put other’s needs first


Mark had parents that hurt and disappointed him

Mark taught us to always respond with love and forgiveness no matter what


Mark lost everything when he went to jail

Mark taught us that if we trust God, HE will always provide… and God provided Effrain


Through Mark’s challenging life of struggle and suffering, Mark finally grew weary and tired.  THE LORD SAID “Mark shall suffer no more,”  SO GOD BROUGHT MARK HOME.  And still MARK REMAINS IN OUR HEART

Mark taught us the meaning of LOVE:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth.  Love patiently accepts all things.  It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.   Love never ends.

Mark showed us how to talk like a child – think like a child – reason like a child – love like a child.   We can see Mark’s reflection, like looking onto the perfect mirror.   I pray that we can always see clearly. We must remember that of all things that continue forever:  faith, hope, and love, THE GREATEST of these is love.    Mark knew this better than anyone !

July 9, 2012

The Suffering of Jesus Means What?

As our series of “Sermons by Request” continues, I had an opportunity this week to explore Isaiah 53:1-6 and do some theological reflection of my own on theories of atonement. Thanks for reading. 

I can remember the last time that I sought to directly evangelize a person to Christianity– I was 20 years old and serving as a summer mission intern with Son Servants, a Presbyterian youth camp organization.  No one in this ministry organization told me to evangelize directly to the children with phrases like “If you died tonight do you know if you’d go to heaven?” but I was the evangelical Southern Baptist in the group– and witnessing was just what I thought I needed to do.  I was a perfectly pious leader sadly at the time. Sigh.

One week of this particular summer’s experience, after the team of youth volunteers and I led a group of children on the Indian reservation in South Dakota in a series of art and craft projects, we took them out to the playground near a lake.

One girl in particular, I’ll call her Ana, became very attached to me quickly. She wanted me to push her and push her on the swings on the playground and climb with her on the monkey bars. For the entire playtime, Ana would not leave my side. Maybe it was because I had given out the juice and cookies only minutes earlier and she looked like she hadn’t had a good meal in days. But, regardless, feeling good about the connection I’d made to this 9-year-old girl, I felt convicted about the next thing I should do– I needed to tell her about the great divide her sins had caused between her and God and that Jesus paid the price on the cross so that she could live forever with the Lord. I did not want to have her lack of opportunities to receive the gospel to be my fault. 

I don’t remember much about the rest of the conversation or even if she prayed the 1, 2, 3 step “I am a sinner, Jesus died for my sins, and I’m so thankful God that I can now go to heaven” prayer I offered her. But I do remember being stopped in my tracks internally as the group prepared to go back to the campsite where we were staying, wondering what in the world I had just done? Though such a practice wasn’t new to me (I’d been through the same routine countless times before with other kids in summer programs– trying to lead them to faith), this time I really began to think about the theology behind my words.

Was this, I wondered, what the gospel were really all about? Was the gospel something that can be melted down into a 5 step plan that makes children feel sorry for their sins knowing the Jesus replaced their punishment on the cross? All I knew in that moment was that I needed to think some more about what all of this evangelism I’d been so interested in was really all about before I tried it again.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been the instigator or recipient of a  “let me tell you about the atonement for sins that Jesus offers you” conversation (I’m sure you’ve at least seen one example like this on tv), but often our Old Testament lesson for today is among the most quoted scripture passages on this topic. It’s a passage that is often read at Good Friday services meant to explain what the crucifixion of Jesus means for those of us who seek to know and follow him today.  It’s a passage that centuries and centuries of Christians have claimed as among their favorite– and was among the favorite passages submitted among the congregation last month.

And, with all of this true, I’m going to stop at this juncture and give you a mini-commercial on how reading Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures are best read (which applies to our sermon for this morning and all other times when our focus text comes from this part of the Bible).

Always, always, always, do not interpret scripture out of its original context. And I repeat: always, always, always do not interpret scripture out of its original context.

It would be very easy for us at this juncture to read Isaiah 53:1-6 into story of Jesus– to say that the Isaiah writer was actually giving us a prophetic message for what would happen in the incarnation of Christ thousands of years later. And, while yes, we can’t help but understand our reading of anything from Isaiah (and the other prophetic books for that matter) in light of the WHOLE story of the Bible as we read it cover to cover which includes the formation of a new Christian community, we can’t forget the context of the original hearers.

We can’t forget those who first received these words: the people of Israel who would soon be asked to return home from exile in Babylon.  

We can’t forget what upheaval and change they would be asked to embrace as they returned home. We can’t forget the pain and suffering the leadership would face, in particular, for being obedient to God’s plans for their lives.

We can’t forget that a particular message to a particular people was being prescribed– a message that had a lot to say about suffering.  What was the point of suffering after all? Did participating in it actually have any redemptive value?

I think, though with all of this being true about the importance of paying attention to the context of the original Isaiah hearers, we can’t have a discussion about this passage without talking about Jesus. For tradition has dictated through the years that Isaiah 53 is indeed directly talking about Jesus. And if you look at the front cover of our bulletin for this morning, you’ll notice it’s a picture of person’s back tattoo with this verse of scripture on it. And it is in the shape of a cross.  You don’t have to go far until you realize for traditional Christians, Isaiah 53 has become a playbook for Christians seeking to explain atonement– what Jesus dying on the cross really meant and means.

But, to answer the question placed before us in the sermon for this morning: “The suffering of Jesus means what?” we must be stay with the crucifixion of Jesus more than just one day every year– if that at all (for in fact, the Good Friday service is one of the most poorly attended worship services globally in fact. . . But that’s a whole other sermon). We must learn to stick with the hard questions of faith– even if they make us squirm in our pews a little bit more this morning.  Hard words like “atonement.”

If I say the word atonement– a most basic theological definition of this word is Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of humanity.

I want to share with you two camps of atonement theory– not to just to help your theological education and understanding of the text before us today– but because so much of how we explain our faith to our neighbors (via evangelism or not) has a lot to do with how we describe atonement. And, it is so much a part of popular rhetoric about Christianity.

Realize this morning for sake of time and our brains not exploding, I’m painting with some broad strokes here. There are indeed more than two camps of atonement theories, but I believe in light of Isaiah 53, these are the two we should most understand. I don’t always say this, but feel free to take notes if this helps you follow me.

The first camp of the theories is that of substitutionary atonement or in more basic terms the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.”

It’s the camp that says that what Jesus did on the cross was to right many wrongs committed by all humanity. And there is a wide spectrum to this belief of atonement. There are some who believe in substitutionary atonement who say that Jesus had to die as a payment for our sins; Christ suffered for us so that we didn’t have to.

And at then at the other end of the spectrum there are those who say that the substitution Jesus made was more because God demanded it. God took the life of Jesus as a payment for our sins.

But in either case, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins” boils down to our being asked to simply believe in Jesus as Savior so that the substitution of our unrighteousness for Jesus’ righteousness can take place.

This camp is the most popular of the theories of atonement through Christ tradition. Just pick up any hymn book and turn to the “death of Jesus” section and what you will find are statements about how Jesus paid it all, how we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the lamb or Jesus took our place on the old rugged cross.

But problems with this theory arise when you take a step back and see the larger picture of what was going in the suffering of Jesus from this perspective. The largest problem is that if you say, “Jesus died for my sins” then you also profess that God set up the crucifixion of Jesus. God brought suffering on Jesus.

Or as Phyllis Tickle once said, “It’s a huge example of divine child abuse.” And for many of us stomaching following a God like this is too much to bear. In fact, Sojourners magazine just this week, published an article about how seeking to convert someone by starting the conversation with “Jesus died for your sins”[i] can be the scariest thing you could say– and should be avoided.

However, there is another camp of the atonement theories and this is the representory or exemplar perspective.

In this camp, Jesus was sent to earth to represent God to us. We who were living in sin, we who had fallen short of God’s best for us, we who had gone off course of God’s original intentions for humanity, were given Jesus so that through him,  we could find our way back home to the right path. Jesus showed us a different way to God– a perfect way.

 However, as this theory goes, Jesus did such a great job of showing us God that those with power in his world during his time did not like him. They didn’t like him so much that they had him killed.

Therefore, this leads us to recognize that if we follow Jesus and the path he set out for us to know God better, we should not be surprised if we are killed too. For in fact didn’t Jesus say to his followers, “whoever loses his life will find it?” 

It’s a theory in the end that takes the focus off Jesus as the recipient of divine punishment and instead directs us to the cost of discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, this theory says, then, we must be prepared to suffer.

And it is here at this point that we arrive again at a great point to sit with our Isaiah passage yet again. A passage which speaks of a servant (though undefined who) which suffers.  We read of a servant who  in verse three “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity . . . has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

It’s not a type of suffering that we read is just in vain. It’s not a suffering just for suffering’s sake– because the Divine is mean and trying to bully his subjects into submission. Rather, it is suffering that makes a difference because God is revealed in it.

For as the servant forged a new path of righteousness and integrity, even in the face of evil, the onlookers of the person going through the suffering saw God.

The onlookers saw God’s grace.

The onlookers saw God’s message to the world that even though we’ve all messed up, we’ve all made some not so good choices in our lives, the Divine says back to us, “You are ok. And I love you.”

When I think back to those days of seeking to convert the children on the playground in South Dakota (with some shame of course of my misguided approach), what I most wish I could go back and tell Ana, my young friend with mad skills on the monkey bars is: get to know Jesus.

Get to know this man who loved you even before you were able to love him. Get to know this man who wanted you to know your heavenly parents– your always loving parents, always forgiving, always providing parents more than anything, so badly that he gave up everything so that you could have this chance.

And come and learn of Jesus’ suffering too– how he was rejected for doing the right thing.  For you, Ana will suffer much in your life (if you haven’t already), and you’ll need to know that someone has been there too. Jesus suffered to the point of death so that in his life, he could show us the way to God.  And the God you’d learn more about through Jesus is the God who loves you already more than you could ever imagine!

Because atonement theories or not, isn’t this what all of us long to hear? That we are loved. That God sees us, especially in our moments of deep pain.

That Jesus not only offered us through his life (which included suffering) a way to be in deep relationship with God. 

And that as we suffer in this life,  our pain, as we give it back to God for God to use for divine purposes in this world can be redemptive too?



June 18, 2012

Surprises in Grief

Yesterday I preached on I Samuel 15:34-16:13, and though I thought I would be writing a sermon about God’s unlikely choices this ended up being a sermon about grief. Surprised me for sure! I just couldn’t seem to get the “How long will you grief for Saul?” verse out of my mind as I prepared. So, I just went with it and here’s a portion of it:

When is the last time you truly grieved over something? I mean a good long cry, a into the night cry, into the next day cry that you thought that you never would get over?

 I remember the spring when my grandmother died. Gran, who had played a central role in my upbringing and joy in my childhood, died as when I was in my second semester of seminary. Gran was more than just a grandmother via biological connections, she was a friend, a confidant, someone in whom I talked my problems over with regularly. She made me feel special always in a way that others did not. When she died, the loss stung deep. It ached. It made me feel like there was no reason in the morning to get out of bed– though trust me, there was plenty of papers calling my name to write! But, I couldn’t seem to get over it as much as I tried.

 Anne Lamott in her book Operating Instructions writes about the first year of her son’s life the experience of getting used to motherhood but at the same time grieving the death of one of her closest friends saying, “And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”

Sometimes as much as we want to get over the loss of someone or something, we simply can’t. Our grief grips us and becoming the central story of our lives to the pint in which we simply can’t even comprehend seeing past our own circumstances.

 Grief, as many of you know, especially those of you who have studied it in workshops and other seminars, is not always about loss via death. Grief over the loss of careers, aspirations or relationship which used to be close but are no longer can paralyze us as deeply as any physical death can. To wake up one morning and find that what you thought was your life work is destroyed by the rejection of others, to come to terms with your best friend no longer is speaking to you, or be let in on a truth about our family after years of secrecy, we can feel smacked in the face. Grief seeks to holding us down for as long as possible. Grief, if we don’t find a way to move through it can destroy our lives.

 In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, we meet the prophet Samuel again.

 Called out as the great prophet of Israel, called out as young boy to be the saving grace leader of a nation in deep decline, called out as the one who would be God’s spokesperson to a people desperate to hear a good word– Samuel  was on top of the world. Things were going great! Samuel was the hope of the nation, after all.  Yet, in this state of extreme responsibility, I can imagine that Samuel  felt  he needed to make just the right choices at just the right time so to ensure that the nation of Israel had a future. And for a while, it seemed Samuel tasted the sweet fruit of his good, seemingly God led choices.

 So, what happens when all goes badly? What happens when the king HE anoints behaves badly and needs to be removed from office?

 And it is at this juncture, we find him in a place of deep grief.  All is not well in his world.  Samuel blames himself. He pouts. He cries. And, see Saul’s failures as a reflection of himself.  How can he ever again show his face in public after Saul has flopped big time? Grief was his primary story.

 And God has a word with him about it saying in 16:1: “How long will you grief over Saul?”

 Or, “How long, Samuel will grief be your story?”

 It is not that grieving is wrong or an inappropriate emotion, but that for every period of grief, (especially the more pity party kinds)– there comes a time when it must end. For as spiritually cleansing and healthy as grief is, it’s an emotion has a time and season. For, if one stays in a grieving process too long, past its time– it can actually be destructive. For Samuel, God says, it is time to move on.

Grief over what could, should, would have been and all the feelings of personal failure internalized held Samuel captive, we learn. In particular for Samuel, his grief held him captive to only what he could see, hear, and feel in the present moment. Grief stole his vision for life and the people he was entrusted to lead.

Thus, the Lord is saying to him, “You are not perfect. All is not perfect in this land.  I know this. But one thing still holds true: I still love these people. I still love you. And, there is work to be done in the future!” And this is the post-grief task one that our text narrates for us, God says: “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

Though Saul has been a disappointment of a king and leader and Samuel wants to keep believing that it was all his fault, such feelings just aren’t helpful. In fact, God is asking him to dust his sandals off from the dirt in which he’s sat and go be a part of the next great thing that God was going to do in the nation: anoint the next king.

And, it’s important to note here that it would have been easy for Samuel, as he went to find the next leader, to fall into the trap that is naturally a part of being in an aggrieved state: the syndrome of “must do anything to fix the pain right now.”

 You’ve met these people if you aren’t one right now: the “hurry up and get this over with” folks. Pain and its effects are despised so much that  these people will do anything not to feel the pain of disappointment, rejection or loss.  Things like:  drinking too much wine  when they get home from work, staying at the gym too long and skipping meals, or even drowning each night away in mindless tv– just avoiding the grief through a distraction.

 Or, the approach of getting to work too rapidly, taking the lead alone to solve the grief right away. Type A things like signing up for every single class or seminar known to man about a particular issue– trying to become the expert of one’s own problems. Things like making lists after lists after lists of what can be done– trying to logically organize their way through your problems. Or even, the simple act of refusing to rest through grief– doing, doing and more doing.

 In all of this, I believe that God knew that Samuel could be in this exact place as well– trying to avoid or solve the problem too quickly. Samuel is given exactly, then what grief needs to keep moving– clarity. Samuel is told exactly what to do, exactly what to say, and exactly who to listen to when he arrives at the hometown of Jesse.  The end of verse three gives us what is most important as a word from the LORD: “You shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

 Specifically Samuel was told in verse 7 not to make a quick judgment just to get the process of selecting the next leader done as quickly as possible. Saying, to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart.” 

God saying, “Don’t just go Samuel to who you think meets the criteria that others will approve of. Instead, listen to me. I can show you who has the heart for the work of king. Don’t make this process about you. Listen.”

Or simply stated, Samuel could have rushed through the line of brothers among Jesse’s sons– very easily he could have solved his failure complex quickly– but if he did, then, he’d be missing out on an opportunity to hear God’s leading.

And, thus, this is the surprise– in Samuel’s grief, in his pain, God was about to do a new thing, a new thing in the life of Israel where healing would come from the unlikely choice of youngest son David as the next king as Samuel kept listening. This was all he was asked to do.

I can remember some of the most powerful words said over me (that I obviously still remember to this day) at my ordination service. During the laying on of hands a deacon of the ordaining church came up to me and said, “Listen to God. You’ve gotten to this point in your life through listening and you will do great things if you keep listening.”

Isn’t God funny like this sometimes? We make it so difficult when all we are asked to do is to put one foot in front of the other and listen as we go.  Of course this doesn’t take away the pain or the loss, but we do have direction for what is next. And this can be grief’s greatest surprise . . .

How else have you been surprised by grief in your life? I’d love to know!

April 30, 2012

Love, Christians and Those Who Might Call us Crazy

When is the last time you encountered a person of faith, in particular a Christian who was engaging in particular activities one might call “crazy?”

I know I’ve met my share of over the top loving kind of Christians through the years being in church as long as I have.

I’ve met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree in which they decide to sell their home and pack up their things and move across the world– to third world nations sometimes even– to share hope in medical supplies, food and friendship with some of the world’s most discouraged and broken people. They do so saying, “God has called me to show Christ’s love.”

I’ve met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree in which they open up rooms in their home to internationals, struggling single mothers, or exhausted college students — even when the person has no means to financially repay their kindness and nurture them back on their feet again. They do so citing, “God has called me to show Christ’s love.”

I’ve met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they’ll spend hours of their free time making hospital visits to the terminally ill without family attending — bringing a compassionate touch of support to those who would not otherwise have any. They do so citing, “God has called me to show Christ’s love.”

I’ve met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they ask their own young children to go without that desired toy at Christmas so that instead the money can be used to buy toys, clothes and other household items for families in their neighborhood who have recently lost everything in a destructive fire. They do so citing, “God has called me to me show Christ’s love.”

I’ve also met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they stop everything they are doing when they learn a member of their church has experienced a death in the family. Soon piles and piles of mac and cheese, broccoli chicken casserole, and hearty soups are delivered to the home of the grieving just in case they get hungry. They do so citing, “God has called me to show Christ’ s love.”

Christians can be crazy people can’t that? Doing the behind the scenes work of compassionate deeds, sacrificial giving and life-giving hospitality that others in the world might find to be foolish, a waste of resources or for some, just plain dumb. But, truly Christian act– or seek to act in love because of the life and witness of Jesus Christ.

I John 3 lays it out clearly for us here:

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.   And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them,   how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children,   let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

As followers of Christ, our hearts are full of compassion for others in the same way that we know God has been compassionate toward us.

So, while sure, Christians don’t have a market on this whole “loving deeds” business (a tenant of people of all world religions), we certainly are people who can’t avoid it. We can’t say that loving each other is some humanistic talk without spiritual value to Jesus. We can’t boil our faith down to a commitment we made years ago with no evidence of it in our daily life. Just as Christ loved us and taught us how to love, we are to love one another.

I’m proud to be a member and a pastor of a church that is about the “crazy” business of loving each other and any who would come in our doors. Just a couple of weeks ago a group of homeless teens came to worship and I was so proud of how everyone responded to them feel at home. Just yesterday, we all piled our resources together and hosted a lunch for a family who recently lost their loved ones. And countless other examples could be given.  Loving other always our calling– even when we don’t agree theologically, even we don’t always understand one another, even when we get on each other’s nerves. We can still love. We can always love. And if they call us crazy for doing so, then this makes Jesus crazy too and we’d be in good company!

February 19, 2012

Whitney Houston Took Us to Church

Today, Whitney Houston took me to church.

This afternoon from 12 noon- 4 pm I watched the entire Whitney Houston funeral via the life stream. By the end, as her body left the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey while Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Loved You” played, I was in tears. I couldn’t believe how moved I became or how not restless I was through the entire service.

Initially, I sat down to watch the service out of pure vocational obligation– when religion holds a promote place in the public square (i.e. a church service is featured prominently on national tv) I feel it is my pastoral responsiblity to watch. But, I kept watching because of the poignant, faith-filled words and that the most unlikely of preachers and speakers brought to the gathering.

Though I am a child of the 80s and grew up dancing around the house with a hairbrush singing, “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” I wouldn’t have not considered myself a die-hard Whitney fan. In fact, have been among the folks who have stood back during the media spectacle of the past week saying under my breath, “What is all this fuss about? It’s not like we knew her personally.” But, maybe all of us just thought we did.

The bright light of fame begins to convince us, with any well-known celebrity, that we are their friend too. It is easy to believe that we too grew up on their same street as a child, shared a coffee meeting with them last week or in some cases, or that we’ve read journals of their deepest thoughts. With such a bright light, it’s true, I like millions of others, I believed too, that I knew Whitney (even though such is of course false).  Even with all the illusions of a celebrity’s passing, death is death. And, death evokes sadness. When death comes too soon, when mothers bury daughters, when teenage daughters face life without their mothers, and when the future seems spoiled in the questions of “what could have been?” we cry.  What a daughter, what a mother, and what a voice that we’ll never hear in this life again!

In this grief, all of us went to church.

As the sermon began, Rev. Marvin Winans, a family friend, commented how much he respected Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom’s) leadership in bringing the funeral to her childhood church. While pressure in the planning process intensified to include a large public concert or memorial service, Mama Houston (as they called her) stuck to her gut. Knowing that her baby was brought into the world in church, she’d need to go from the world from it too.  And, Marvin Winans, went on to say to Cissy directly, “You were responsible for bringing the world to church today.”

And for the entire four hours of non-interrupted television on CNN, we, as onlookers, sat with grief of a music icon gone with God’s hope of resurrection given at the center. 

From Tyler Perry really getting into a message about grace leading us our life through, as it did for Whitney to Kevin Costner describing their shared Baptist upbringing and abiding friendship, to family members and other business associates highlighting Whitney’s spiritual compass and love of scripture, even with all of the demons she went to battle with: it was church. The funeral was authentic, life-giving, straight talking, love filled, church. For me, it was four hours well spent of  spirit filled connection with God with other faith seekers– nevermind how famous, affluent, poor or unknown they may be. Together in person, on cable news, or via the internet, we went to church.

In this trip to church, the spirit from which this service flowed represented for me the best of what this place can be:

  • People of all backgrounds, races and nationalities joining together in community
  • Deep grief finding a place of expression for it is good not to cry alone
  • The gospel of hope shared even in the darkness of death. Like Bishop T.D. Jakes said, “we are a people of Sundays . . . death does not win; love does!”
  • People for whom this place is not normally “their thing” being welcomed with open arms: politicians, newscasters who experienced a worship service the first time in their lives, and those whose ambitions have long left regular church attendance behind (well, maybe not Bobby Brown, but that’s another story)
  • Those who have made some bad decisions in their life (i.e. Whitney) being celebrated for the good within them, not the bad because hey, we have all messed up in one way or another! (Who are we to throw stones?)
  • Compassion filled truth talking. Cissy Houston being told by her daughter-in-law, “You did all you could to help Whitney. There are some people for whom even Jesus couldn’t heal if they didn’t want it. You did all you could. You should be proud.” And, Kevin Costner sharing a story about some of the deep insecurities and fears spoke aloud by Whitney to him. Costner saying, “Whitney always wondering if people loved HER or image of her?” And Costner making things clear: “No people didn’t just like you, Whitney; they loved you!”
  • And, above all, praise of God grounding all things. The service began in praise, moved in praise of God (one of my favorite moments being when CeCe Winans leading the congregation in “Jesus Loves Me”), and ended in praise of God as the choir sang, “Let the Church Say Amen.”

Thank you Whitney for taking us to church today. The spirit of the life you lead, the legacy you left behind, and the faith that carried you (even when life seemed like too big of load to carry you sought to keep going and learning from your mistakes) uplifted our hearts. And, though we will miss you in this life, we know this after church today: your spirit soars on praise of your Creator. Can I get an Amen?

October 3, 2011

You will be Missed Joseph M. Smith

I heard the sad news this afternoon that on September 30, my friend Joe Smith had passed a way. After struggling for several months with lung cancer, loosing his voice and later his strength, he ended his fight last week. He left this earth too soon!

When Joe and I first met, I was one of the pastoral associates at First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg, Maryland. He entered the picture as Interim Pastor hired by the church leadership to come and “supervise” the “young pastoral staff” because we weren’t seen as capable of leading the church in the transition. If you know me well at all, you know that such an intention of the church leadership was not agreeable to me– I felt hurt and overlooked for the gifts I could bring to the church at this crucial time. So, especially in our first couple of interactions there was tension. Joe wondered why I wanted to preach so much as the previous Senior Pastor had allowed and seemed unsure of what to do with me . . and I wasn’t sure what would happen. At best, I hoped that we could work together in ways that were helpful to the church.  (Pictured to the right was the staff)

But as is the case in most relationships, when you move from knowing “of” someone to actually knowing them, things quickly change. As time went on and Joe heard me preach and I watched him lead, we soon gained respect for one another at a deep level, even with our theological differences. I knew he wanted me to succeed. He knew I would soon be a senior pastor, the question would just be where? I knew the church was blessed by his ministry. On countless occasions we would have long chats about how to best respond to moments of crisis within the congregation. Joe would carefully listen to my perspective and always made me feel like a valuable part of the team. I learned so much from him about how to lead when you aren’t in charge, the importance of sermon series in shaping the life of the church and how to really love being a pastor.

When we had lunch one afternoon in Bethesda, three years ago now, I told Joe the news I dreaded to share. I would soon be leaving FBCG to become the pastor of Washington Plaza. He quickly put me at ease and cheered me on for this new adventure.

On my first Sunday at Washington Plaza in January of 2009, I found flowers on the altar that I knew he’d arranged to be present there in support of the day. And, when Washington Plaza installed me as their 4th pastor, Joe came again– this time to give the “charge” to me to look to the future in ministry. He’s pictured to the left alongside the two other speakers for the special occasion.

Over the past several years, we’ve kept in touch though we no longer worked together. I was given several wonderful volumes from his library that he was cleaning out and wanted to give to some “young pastors.” (This time I didn’t mind being called “young”). I found out that Joe was reading my blog and was eager to comment if something I wrote connected with him in any way. Joe was also quick to send me an email about news of shared friends. For he never wanted me to be out of the loop.

Joe was kind and thoughtful in ways that were attentive to detail but were never showy or over the top. He left a legacy of faithfulness in so many communities of well-edited documents, quick humor and preaching on his toes.

I will miss Joe and know some angels in heaven must be rejoicing about now as he is at peace. I am sorry, Joe, that I never got to say good-bye! I am forever grateful for your contributions to my life. With my deepest regards– your last associate pastor trainee.

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