The Other Side

I performed a memorial service today. In over sixteen years of doing college ministry, I officiated only three services like this. Since becoming a local church pastor twelve months ago, I’ve already sat with three families, trying to walk with them in this dark valley of grief.  My fellow pastors here have walked with even more.

Today at the service, I read passages that spoke of grieving with hope (1 Thessalonians), believing in life even when someone dies (John 11), and that one day God will prepare a feast (Jerrad, the man who died, performed art with his cooking. He made meals at our church for years.). That same passage that talked about a feast of fine food also said that death will be no more, and He will wipe away every tear (Isaiah 25:6-8). There is a sense in times like this that we feel deep sadness and despair, but have another feeling, seemingly just out of reach, but still there. We might call that hope, trust, or faith. It’s just on the other side. And we should be careful not to think that the goal is to get to that other side, but rather acknowledge that despair and hope are like two sides of a coin.

Over the next few months, we’re going to look at the Psalms. We’re going to look at these deep emotions we find there: despair, loneliness, anger at injustice, doubt. Ironically, the Psalms are where I first met God. Someone handed me a Bible outside of my middle school, when I was 12. I never opened it until a dark and depressing season when I was 16. When I began to look at this Bible’s table of contents, it said “Where to Find Help.” And it directed me to the Psalms. A strange place, you might think, to first encounter God. Psalms that cried out, “Where are you?” (Psalm 10, The Message). Psalms that cried out, “Have you forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77) Those passages intrigued me, because they sounded like real life. And God was speaking into those painful questions. I was interested in the people who would ask God questions like this, and still write, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 77:11)

I hope that over these weeks of studying the Psalms, that a few things will happen. First, that we can quit pretending that as followers of Jesus that we’re not supposed to feel things like despair, loneliness, doubt, or anger. And, that we stop telling our friends when they are going through it that they’re not supposed to feel those things either.  Finally, that even though we walk through dark valleys, we see exactly how close things like hope, faith, trust, mercy, and healing are.

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What I said…only better

Yesterday, I preached a sermon from the gospel of Luke, chapter 15. The “holy people” of Jesus’ day were grumbling about him spending time with “sinners.” Elsewhere in the same book (Luke 7…especially verses 31-35), Jesus knew that people were calling him a glutton and a drunk, because he was spending time with such people. Jesus goes on to tell two stories: one about a man who loses a sheep, and one about a woman who loses a coin. You can read it here.

If you’ve been around church for a while, you have probably heard sermons on this before. I tried to do something different with this, at least different for me.  I asked us to imagine being in the audience and hearing these parables for the first time. I wanted us to imagine being the “holy people,” the people who spent most of their lives trying to do the right thing, maintain a relationship with God, and set up boundaries in our lives in order to maintain that relationship. How might we have heard those stories?

When I put myself in the sandals of the Pharisees, the sect of Judaism that was trying to live out the law of God as best they could, I found that these stories, probably would make us begin to ask questions like these:

Do I think that God celebrates like that over people I see as “outside” the church? Do I know this God of celebration?

When did I lose that sense of celebration, and when did I lose that urgency to share the hope that I have?

I said some other thingsyesterday as well. But I think this does it better. Today, I came across a video from Michael Stewart, who is the Founding Director of Verge Network and Conferences( http://www.vergenetwork.org/)

The video features three segments that say what I was trying to say yesterday, in more compelling and clear ways. These short videos get to the heart of our resistance to share, but also how simple it might be to introduce people to follow Jesus. Here is the video link: http://www.vergenetwork.org/lp/barriers/

Who is my neighbor?

And the million dollar question is…”How?” Question Mark

(perhaps the half-million dollar question is, “How exactly?”)

If someone tells that we should be doing something, whether it be exercising more, eating better, reading more, spending more time with our families, etc…isn’t the question “How?” or “How exactly?” close behind?

I’ve been studying the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 this week. An expert in God’s law comes to Jesus, asking him how we might inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking him a question. (side note: Jesus does this a lot…answering a question with a question. I heard author and speaker Ravi Zacharias say that by doing this, Jesus unearths the assumptions of the ones asking the questions. Why is it they are really asking?)

Jesus asks him how he reads the law. The man answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he has answered well.

But then really wants to know how to do this, when he asks for some clarification. “Who is my neighbor?”

To this, Jesus tells a story. You can read it here.

Along with studying this passage, I’ve been reading a book by Steve Moore, entitled, appropriately, Who is My Neighbor? I don’t mean for this to be a book review, because, in all honesty, I haven’t even finished the whole book. But I found the chapter entitled “From Information to Action” especially good. Moore says that there are four “exit ramps” that prevent us from actually feeling compassion for someone, and then acting on that feeling. Exit RampsFirst is intention: that we might actually have lots of great thoughts about serving, encouraging, having compassion…but the hurriedness of our lives prevents us from actually doing anything. The second is deflection. We think that showing mercy or helping someone in need is really someone else’s job. Third is rationalization. We think that what we do isn’t really going to make a difference, that what we can offer isn’t nearly enough to solve the problem. Fourth is justification, which Moore describes as deflection and rationalization on “steroids.” (p. 55) These are beliefs we form that attempt to explain why someone might be poor or in need, and that they “might have brought it on themselves.”

But the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t seem to allow for any of these exit ramps. When the man asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life, and how exactly he might act on this, Jesus told him a story. A story of a man who actually DID something for someone in need. While others walked by, this man (and Jesus chooses the hero very carefully, and to his hearers, this Samaritan was an unlikely hero) took the initiative and showed mercy.

I found myself asking, “Which exit ramp do I use most often?”

How about you?

Just like a good neighbor…the church is there?

Many of us have probably seen the ads for State Farm Insurance. If you haven’t, they go like this. A group of three young men are watching television, when a baseball comes crashing through the living room window. One of the men picks up the baseball, while another quickly says, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this taken care of.” He then says, “Watch…Just like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Instantly, a woman in a business suit, clipboard in hand, is there in the living room. It’s the State Farm agent, there at the call of the insurance holder. The commercial then goes to the ridiculous, as the friends take turns saying the “magic” phrase, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…with a sandwich!” The sandwich appears, and then, as the men chime in with their wishes, the sandwich is followed by an attractive woman neighbor, who happens to live in Apartment 4E, and finally, a hot tub. State Farm makes its point: when you have a need, and you have State Farm, their agents will be there like a magic genie.

State Farm

The ads are clever…but I began to wonder about the phrase that State Farm has used for years in its ad campaigns. “Like a good neighbor.” Do we really know what that phrase means anymore? What is a good neighbor? I remember growing up on our street in Seattle, just a few miles from the University of Washington. We knew our neighbors, as they had kids who lived across the street, and down the street. Our street was a mix of families with children, retired couples, widows and widowers. I knew the names of actually over 40 families in the surrounding five block radius, mostly because my older brother and I shared a paper route for six years (for my younger friends, Google “paper route.” It’s in the historical archives. You’ll have to go to Page 2 of Google search results, because I’m not talking about the band named Paper Route). But since my time living on my childhood street, in the multiple neighborhoods I have lived in as a young adult and now 40-something adult, I can’t tell you all the names of my neighbors.

neighborhood

Turns out I’m not alone. In preparation for teaching at our church, I’m reading a book entitled, “The Art of Neighboring.” Authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon write about the loss of neighboring in our culture. They cite the fact that, in recent years, city planners, neighborhood developers, architects, and others have helped to construct neighborhoods and homes so that it minimizes contact between neighbors. Plus, our culture values privacy so much that we treat our homes merely as launching points for work (which often happens miles away) and play (which again, happens miles away). When Jay and Dave speak nationally, they claim that only about 10% of their audiences can even name their immediate neighbors on all sides of their home. Jay and Dave began this journey of studying the art of neighboring when a group of pastors and ministry leaders asked the mayor of their Denver suburban area how their churches could best serve the city. The mayor said, “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.” (The Art of Neighboring, p.18) Jay and his fellow pastors were embarrassed when they realized that Jesus had indeed said the greatest commandment included “loving your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

For nine weeks, we’re going to talk about how we as individuals, and we as a church, could be good neighbors. We’re going to see that the roots of this invitation come from the Old Testament, continue through the gospels, and find their way into the letters of Paul and James. I don’t pretend to think that a nine-week series will solve our neighboring problem. But our church is committed to making followers of Jesus, and in loving our community well, in the name of Jesus. This is a starting point, when we realize that God has always intended that His people be a blessing to those around them. And one day, by His grace, by the change the only He can bring, may our neighbors say, “like good neighbors, the people of the church are there.”