Resurrection Hope

I heard the story about a guy named Stan and his friend who was leaving the sanctuary Easter Sunday after worship. As was his custom, the preacher was standing at the door greeting people. He grabbed Stan’s friend by the hand and pulled him aside. The Pastor said to him, “You need to join the Army of the Lord!” The friend replied, “I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor.” The Pastor asked, “Well then how come I don’t see you except on Christmas and Easter?” He whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

All joking aside, we just celebrated Easter on April 1. The resurrection carries profound implications every day of our lives in every area of our lives. How? 1 Peter 1:3-4 makes this powerful declaration: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (NIV).

The Apostle Peter starts the letter by stating that we praise God because in his mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection.This idea is rich, so let’s spend some time unpacking it.

First, is “in his great mercy.” Mercy refers to God’s compassion. Did you know God has a deep passion for you? That he cares for you with a love that you and I cannot begin to fathom? You may be thinking: “But I don’t feel it. How do I know God feels this way about me?”

Well, we know because “he has given us new birth.” “New birth” means “reborn, restored, made new.” Through faith in Jesus Christ, God makes us reborn, restored, made new. What’s that about? Using similar words, in John 3:3 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”The Christian tradition teaches that each person is born with a sinful nature. This means the default setting of our hearts is to constantly say “no” to serving God and obeying his word while saying, “yes” to our selfish desires. That makes us estranged from God. And if we don’t address that sinful nature, when we die, God in his perfect justice, releases us into Hell, where we are separated from God’s loving presence for eternity.

However, the good news of the Bible is that God the Father sent Jesus to die on the cross to take away our sins and give us a new nature. And when we trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we are reborn, made new. It’s a gift: we don’t deserve it, we cannot earn it; instead, we must turn away from our sins and receive it.

Amazingly, this new birth brings with it another gift: “a living hope.” Hope is assurance, confidence, expectation. This hope is not rooted in our feelings, but in the Holy Spirit, who lives inside every Christian. 1 Peter 3:18 states Christ “was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” And because we have this living hope inside us through the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, it’s inexhaustible. It’s with you all the time, everywhere. Now, what happens when it seems distant?

In that case, it’s best to look at the resurrection. Peter assets the resurrection secured this living hope. How so? First, the resurrection is a historical event: in 1 Cor. 15 the Apostle Paul states it’s a historical fact verified by the twelve apostles and over five-hundred witnesses. Second, the resurrection is attested to by a living person—Jesus Christ. We have a living hope because Jesus is living.

Bottom line, we praise God because in his mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection.

Now think about this: in 1 Peter 1 Peter pointed Christians—who were most likely experiencing persecution for their faith—to the resurrection because the resurrection changes everything, including the way we view evil and suffering.

John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University and author of the book “Gunning for God,” tells a story about touring Eastern Europe and meeting a Jewish woman from South Africa. The woman told Lennox that she was researching how her relatives had perished in the Holocaust. At one point on their guided tour, they passed a display that said, “work makes free.” It was a replica of the main gate to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Right then, the Jewish woman turned to Lennox and said, “And what does your religion make of this?”   Lennox writes: “What was I to say? She had lost her parents and many relatives in the Holocaust… I had nothing in my life that remotely paralleled the horror her family had endured.” But she stood in the doorway waiting for an answer. I eventually said, “I would not insult your memory of your parents by offering you simplistic answers to your question… I have no easy answers; but I do have what, for me at least, is a doorway into an answer.” “What is it?” she asked. I replied, “You know that I am a Christian. That means that I believe that Yeshua [the Hebrew name for Jesus] is the Messiah. I also believe that he was God incarnate, come into our world as savior, which is what his name ‘Yeshua’ means. Now I know that this is even more difficult for you to accept. Nevertheless, just think about this question—if Yeshua was really God… what was God doing on a cross? Could it be that God begins just here to meet our heartbreaks, by demonstrating that he did not remain distant from our human suffering, but became part of it himself? For me, this is the beginning of hope; and it is a living hope that cannot be smashed by the enemy of death. The story does not end in the darkness of the cross. Yeshua conquered death. He rose from the dead; and one day, as the final judge, he will assess everything in absolute fairness, righteousness, and mercy.”

There was silence. After a moment, with tears in her eyes, very quietly but audibly, she said: “Why has no one ever told me that about my messiah before?”

The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus give us a profound hope.

 

 

 

How is your family?

Our church recently started a new teaching series called “How to parent (and lead) beyond your capacity.” It’s based on a book called Parenting Beyond your Capacity by pastors and fathers Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof who study Deuteronomy 6 in depth. I am excited because I believe this series will apply to almost everyone: parents, grandparents, godparents, future-parents, and to any person who leads and influences another person. I have asked single people, who don’t have kids, to visualize that person: a younger friend, niece, nephew or cousin. I reminded them, “God put you in that person’s life to offer positive influence and guidance.”

All of this reminds me of the day I became a parent. It all started back on June 7, 2005, in Castle Rock, Colorado. My lovely wife Autumn was thirty-six weeks pregnant. At 1:30 am on a Tuesday, she awakened me and said: “I think I am in labor.” And because I’m an incredibly supportive and sensitive husband, I rolled over and went back to sleep. But a short while later Autumn shook me forcefully and declared “I am in labor, and we need to go to the hospital NOW!” We threw some clothes into a bag, and at 3:00 am sped toward Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado.

Upon arriving in the labor and delivery room, things immediately started going wrong. The nurses struggled to get an IV into Autumn’s hand, and some blood dripped down her fingers. Then, Autumn screamed so loudly and demonstrably (I’m pretty sure it echoed off the Rocky Mountains) the attending doctor concluded she was a perfect candidate for an immediate epidural. However, they gave her too much epidural medicine, and she started to feel sedated and numb. Afterward, we discovered our son’s face was turned inward, toward Autumn’s spine, so the doctor tried to turn him but was only partially successful.

Finally, when it came time to deliver, the OBGYN burst onto the chaotic scene and ordered me to “take a leg.” I said, “Hmm, excuse me?” “Grab her left leg,” she replied. “I didn’t think I was going to be this involved in the delivery,” I thought to myself. Autumn started to push, and then our son’s heart-rate dropped dramatically: apparently he was not coming out fast enough. The OBGYN announced she had to suction him. I had no idea what that meant. She proceeded to put a plastic cap on his head, pumped it, and boom, out came Landon Carter Hoffman.

I hate to admit it, but I immediately thought “Oh no, we have a problem, he doesn’t look like me. He has black curly hair, dark brown eyes, and a cone head. That doesn’t seem quite right!” (For the record, I have blond hair and hazel eyes.)

Well, they cleaned him up, swaddled him, put a hat on his head and handed him to us. There he was. We were parents, and our world would never be the same!

Since that day, Autumn and I have been on a parenting journey. At times it feels a bit like wandering through an impossible maze. Just when you think you may be getting the hang of it, your kid changes, they grow out of diapers or become a pre-teen, and suddenly, you feel discombobulated and lost.

However, I am convinced we can grow as leaders, parents, and influencers. We can all improve and get better. To do that, I believe it’s best to look at what the Bible has to say about parenting, leadership, and influence. In particular, Deuteronomy 6 provides rich insights into parenting and leading others well. For our purposes here, I want to make two brief observations:

1) God wants what’s best for our families/relationships. Deut. 6:2 indicates God wants us to “enjoy [a] long life” and verse three says God wants our lives to “go well” and for our families to “increase greatly.”

2) Our families are called to love God completely. Deut. 6:5 commands us to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Our families and relationships will function well when we look to God for guidance and help.

But here’s the catch. We cannot do this on our strength. Because of sin, we cannot love in the way He deserves. Our natural inclination is to place our desires before God’s plans for us. That is why the New Testament teaches we need a relationship with Jesus Christ to purify us from sin and empower us to love God wholly.

As I close let me encourage you to do a frank, family assessment. Please spend a few minutes this week answering two questions:

1) How is our family doing? Are we enjoying life? Are things going well? If you are single, ask: how are my closest relationships doing? Are they healthy?

2) Currently, where does God fit into our lives? Is he near the center? On the periphery? Off the map?

I bet we would all agree that our families can grow and improve. The key is how much we invite God into this process.

The Spirit helps us grow and change

Even though we’ve just entered February, many of us still possess a remnant of New Year’s hope. We have a God-given desire to make positive changes: to lose ten pounds, to lower our cholesterol or blood pressure, to strengthen our marriage by attending a retreat, to pay down debt, or pass a professional exam to be considered for a promotion. Or perhaps want to be less angry, more patient, to forgive more quickly and often. Some of us want to grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ: to pray more efficiently, to read the entire New Testament or even the whole Bible!

But the hard truth is that we cannot change using our strength. None of us has enough willpower, grit, and discipline. Thus the key to growing and changing is to know who’s leading us—that is, where we can find lasting power and wisdom.

May I suggest the Holy Spirit?

Who is this Spirit? In the Christian tradition, he is God: the third member of the Holy Trinity consisting of the Father, Son, and Spirit. He is fully divine, equal in power and glory to God the Father and Jesus the Son.

Furthermore, this Holy Spirit is a person, not some nebulous, weird ghost. In John 14:16 Jesus calls the Spirit our “Advocate.” In the original language, this word means “legal advocate, advisor, comforter, helper.” The Spirit is our advisor, our comforter, our helper. How does he advise, lead, comfort, and help us? Well, it’s helpful to know he lives inside every Christian. 2 Corinthians 1:22 says God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” Think about that: if you’re a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives in your heart. God the advisor, comforter, and helper, lives inside you right now!

The Spirit helps us in so many ways but let me give just two examples: Romans 8 says the Spirit confirms our identity and helps us pray. According to Romans 8:16 the Spirit “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” and Rom. 8:26 states “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (In the Protestant tradition, generally speaking, we pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.)

And because the Holy Spirit is God, and a person we can have a relationship with, we are called to cultivate and guard that relationship. Galatians 5:16,18 puts it this way: “Walk by the Spirit…[be] led by the Spirit.” Moreover, Ephesians 4:30 commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” while 1 Thessalonians 5:19 instructs, “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Now, here’s where the rubber hits the road. Chances are we need more of the Spirit operating in our lives. And so are you (and I) willing to ask God the Father, in the name of Jesus, to allow the Holy Spirit to increasingly flow inside you and take up further space in your life? That is, to offer the Holy Spirit every part of you, including your fears, your secret sins, your hidden shame? Are you willing to give the Spirit your highest hopes and dreams? Although the Spirit is in us, sometimes we hold back part of ourselves, thinking “God, you can have my family, but not my bank account,” or “you can have my house, but not my internet browser,” etc. I believe the Spirit will give us the power to grow and change if we will surrender more of ourselves to him in 2018.

 

 

In 2018, consider being a bridge-builder

We have arrived upon January 2018! Yes, you survived (and perhaps even thrived in) 2017. The beginning of a new year is oftentimes pregnant with hope and possibility. We believe we can make positive changes in our lives: lose ten pounds, pray more, pay down debt, serve in a local charity, etc.

However, given our current national political environment, marked by division and discord, I want to strongly urge followers of Jesus to consider making a particular commitment in 2018. Let’s make a new or renewed effort to be “peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). While we cannot control what takes place in Washington, D.C., we can control the way we carry ourselves in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and sporting venues. Because Christians are children of God, we can let go of bitterness, cynicism and sarcasm and focus on being people who are agents of peace, healing and reconciliation.

Why am I making this case?

Because I am convinced it reflects God’s heart and therefore His will for our world. Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV) says “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (NIV) makes this bold assertion: “…if anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

Simply put: God cares deeply about reconciliation.

How do we define it? According to scholar Leon Morris the word, in its original usage, means “to change (make other) or to exchange (provide an other)… ‘to effect a thorough change.’”

Bottom line, it is noun and verb, content and action. First, the Christian gospel is ‘reconciliation.’ The cross itself demonstrates both the vertical and horizontal planes of reconciliation. Through faith in Jesus Christ, humanity can be reconciled to the triune God, and humans, to one other. Second, ‘reconciling’ is an action: an intentional, perpetual and vigorous movement connecting people across barriers. To reconcile is to build bridges across difference, and even alienation and hostility.

According to Colossians 1, God is reconciling all things to himself by making peace through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. God’s desire to heal what is hurting and repair what is broken, not just with individuals but also with all of creation. A key way God does this is through his people, known as Christians. 2 Cor. 5 teaches us reconciliation is a “message,” a “ministry,” and even an identity (“Christ’s ambassadors”). Followers of Jesus are to share the message of reconciliation, embody it through their lives (an outward-facing ministry), and embrace their ongoing role as Heaven’s ambassadors on earth.

Make no mistake: this message, ministry and identity were (in the Apostle Paul’s day) and are today, radical and counter-cultural. Eminent theologian N.T. Wright contends, “The world has never before seen a ministry of reconciliation; it has never before heard a message of reconciliation. No wonder the Corinthians found Paul’s work hard to fathom. It didn’t fit any preconceived ideas they may have had. He was behaving like someone… who lived in a whole new world.” Christians are appointed by God to live in a new way because they represent the God who has done a new thing in Jesus Christ. However, we act with humility, knowing perfection is unattainable since we still wrestle with sin and brokenness.

Here’s the takeaway. Knowing God’s passion for reconciliation, and our calling as reconcilers, whom is God asking you to make peace with: an estranged neighbor, coworker, or relative? A friend who’s hurting and withdrawn? Go and seek to build a bridge across that divide. Ask for forgiveness. Tell that person you want to have a better (as opposed to a bitter) relationship. Or perhaps God is asking you to serve as an intermediary who initiates a healing conversation between estranged parties you are connected to. Doing this, undoubtedly, will not solve all the world’s problems. But it will stimulate reconciliation, which in turn, will bring more harmony to our families, workplaces and communities. I am convinced reconciling will create a reservoir of goodwill that will grow and overflow, creating an ever-widening impact.

 

 

Taking your Spiritual Temperature

 

A few weeks ago our younger son Kelan made a funny remark. He said “It smells cold out.” Our older son Landon replied: “That doesn’t make sense! You can’t smell temperature!”

The conversation reminded me how temperature-obsessed our culture is. If you’re like me, you check the weather app on your smartphone numerous times a day. Many of our cars have high tech climate control settings. And what about cooking thermometers? Thanksgiving is coming, and so many people are thinking about either using their digital Bluetooth thermometers, or buying a new one. Temperature even influences our everyday language. We say things like “That lady was boiling, she was hot around the collar,” or, “That guy gave me a frigid stare, an icy look.”

Interestingly, God cares about temperature too. In his letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), Jesus indicates he’s taken their spiritual temperature and has found it deeply troubling. He states, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (Rev. 3:15-18).

A little history will help us better understand Jesus’ references. Historians tell us Laodicea was a prosperous city due to three major industries. First, it was a major center for banking and finance. Second, it was a significant producer of textiles, and was especially known for its production of a shiny, black wool. Third, Laodicea had a prestigious school of medicine, which contributed to the production of a special eye ointment known as “Phrygian powder,” that supposedly healed various eye maladies.

However, in spite of the city’s wealth and prominence, it lacked a stable water supply. In fact Laodicea was dependent on a six-mile aqueduct running from a rivers to its south. New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray explains: “Since… the River Lycus dried up in the summer [and because] Laodicea had to use a long viaduct for its water, the water was not only tepid but impure and sometimes foul, making people sick.” Essentially, Jesus is using the temperature and quality of their water as an illustration of their deplorable spiritual condition. They are lukewarm and foul like their water supply.

What’s the consequence? Jesus states, “I am about to spit you out.” Their spiritual condition is unacceptable.

Why were they lukewarm? It appears the church was coasting: they were going through the motions in their knowledge of Jesus Christ. Scholar Alan Johnson gives this diagnosis: “It was a city with a people who had learned to compromise and accommodate themselves to the needs and wishes of others; they did not zealously stand for anything… they were useless to Christ because they were complacent, self-satisfied, and indifferent to the real issues of faith in him and discipleship.” It seems the church had adopted the attitude of the city’s service based culture.

Yet all was not lost! Jesus asserts, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person” (Rev. 3:19-20). Jesus is declaring “I love you enough to rebuke you and discipline you.” Like a parent who disciplines their child for disrespect or laziness or impulsivity, so the child will grow and mature and reach his/her potential, God disciplines us so we will know him and grow in him.

Moreover, Jesus commands them to “be earnest and repent.” The word “earnest,” in the original language, means “zealously.” Simply put, Jesus instructs them to zealously repent: turn away from your sins of self-sufficiency and complacency and return to me. Why? Jesus continues: “I am knocking on the door of your heart and life. Open it—let me in. I will come in and eat with you.” This word “eat” can be translated “dine with.” In first century Roman culture it referred to the main meal of the day, what we call dinner or supper, taking place in the evening. It was a time to relax, connect and talk.

To summarize: Jesus challenges them, and us, to zealously repent of your self-sufficiency and complacency, open the door to your heart and let me in, and we will dine together. We will converse and have an intimate, face-to-face relationship.

I am curious: what is your spiritual temperature? Are you hot: that is, passionately following Jesus? Are you complacent and lukewarm, going through the religious motions? Or are you cold—keeping Jesus distant from your heart and life?

This November, as fall turns to winter, it’s a fitting time to take our spiritual temperature.

 

 

Jesus is in control, even during crazy times

We are living in surreal times, aren’t we? In recent weeks, Houston, the fourth largest city in the US is starting to recover from what’s been called a 1000-year flood. Then there was a devastating earthquake in Mexico. Hurricane Irma has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and Florida. North Korea is threatening the world by lobbing a missile over Japan and testing a hydrogen bomb. Many of us wonder: what’s next?

Ironically, months ago I planned to preach on Revelation 1-3 at our church during September and October, not knowing all these apocalyptic events would be occurring. I recently joked to our congregation “Nothing like studying the apocalypse to make you feel better, get all warm and fuzzy inside!”

However, I’ve come to realize that Revelation is exactly what we need during times like this. Historians believe that around 95AD, the Apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. And Jesus instructed John to write letters to the churches in seven cities in Asia Minor, what is now modern-day Turkey. Around this time, the Imperial Cult was growing in strength and influence. The Emperor Domitian required the empire’s subjects to call him “Lord and God” and to worship him by burning incense. In fact, every city listed in Revelation 2-3 had an imperial temple except for Thyatira. Many Christians were refusing emperor worship and so were being abused and marginalized. Yet apparently some Christians were wavering and engaging in emperor worship. So as led by the Holy Spirit, John wrote letters to the seven churches both encouraging them and warning them.

But before that, in Revelation 1, Jesus reminds the Apostle John, the Christians being persecuted, and all who would read this majestic book, that he is God and he is with his people in the midst of their crises and suffering. Jesus declares “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).

Simply put, Jesus announces he is God using three descriptors. First, he confesses to being the eternal ruler and creator. A few verses earlier, in Rev. 1:8 he said “I am the Alpha and Omega… the Almighty one.” Jesus is the eternal ruler because has no beginning or end. He existed before creation and will exist after there’s a new creation. Because he’s the eternal ruler, Jesus rules over creation and over the history that takes place within creation. That was great news for the Christians being persecuted by the Roman Empire. They needed to be reassured Jesus was still in control. And in our chaotic times, we need to be reminded Jesus is the eternal ruler and creator who’s still in control of time and history.

Second, Jesus is the crucified and resurrected one. Jesus says, “I’m the Living one, I was dead, but now I’m alive.” Throughout the book of Revelation, (i.e. chapters 5,14, 22) Jesus is referred to as “The Lamb who was slain.” Jesus suffered and died on the cross yet three days later he rose from the dead and is alive today! That means he is with us in our struggles, pain, hurts and confusion. The scriptures say he is close to the brokenhearted. And 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us that because Jesus rose from the dead, his people shall rise from the dead!

Third, Jesus Christ is judge. He states “I hold the keys of death and Hades.” In the ancient world and in the Bible (i.e. Isaiah 22), keys were a symbol of authority and control. Whoever has a house key controls access to a house. In Rev. 20, Hades refers to the departed wicked. So Jesus announces he has authority over death and hell and so he is the judge over death and Hell. And if Jesus has authority over death and hell, he has authority over all things, including a vicious emperor and the fate of Christians resisting him. It also means he has authority over hurricanes, earthquakes and unhinged dictators with nuclear weapons.

Alright, what does all this mean? The bottom line is that Jesus Christ is God: eternal ruler and creator, crucified and resurrected one and judge. Whether our circumstances are good, bad, ugly or indifferent we have a God who cares and who is in control. It might not always look or feel that way, but that is what the Christian faith teaches. He is our hope and strength in the midst of the turmoil.

Do you and I know this Jesus? Are you and I trusting him to lead our lives? Are we praying fervently to him and listening to his voice? And are we helping needy people in every possible way? If so, we can press forward with a dogged confidence come what may.

The Best Glasses

The Best Glasses

What do these people have in common? A mom of three young sons, loses her husband suddenly to pancreatitis. A young Coast Guard officer loses his younger brother (early twenties) to a tragic drowning accident and later struggles through a bewildering divorce. A refugee escapes from war-torn Vietnam with his family, settles in California, graduates from the Naval Academy, but almost loses his promising career when an eye infection comes close to destroying his eye. A young lady from Rhode Island suffers through two painful miscarriages and loses her mother to a drug overdose in less than two years.

These are all what I would call “Underdog Stories.” Back on Easter Sunday our church started a new sermon series called “Underdog Stories: when the odds are against you, God is for you.” Newport County residents shared their intimate, real life stories of how God has shown up in the midst of profound pain and heartache. The resurrected Jesus, through his presence and power, has given them the grace to grow in faith and not quit.

How did these four Christians endure? How were they spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically resilient in the face of potentially devastating circumstances?

I believe we find an answer in Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” What is the Apostle Paul saying here? Let’s break it down.

First, he states, “I consider.” In the original language it’s where we get our modern word “logic” from. It means “To reason, to decide, to conclude.” It refers to deliberating a matter or to weigh something. We do this all the time, don’t we? For example we ask questions like, “Should I go to this college or that college? Should I date/break up with this person or not? Should I stay at my current job or look for another?”

In the Apostle Paul’s case, what is he weighing? He is reasoning over the value of the present compared to the future. In the present, there are all kinds of “suffering,” which in the original language means, “affliction, agony, deep emotion.” People we love die. We get painful diseases. We experience unexpected betrayals, financial fallouts and crushing disappointments.

The truth is, the Apostle Paul understood suffering intimately. In fact in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, he lays out his resume of suffering. It’s pretty intense physical, emotional and psychological stuff: floggings and beatings, being shipwrecked, jailed multiple times, treachery, excruciating hunger, thirst, and coldness, to name a few. If you are having a rough day, I recommend you read 2 Corinthians 11 to feel better, because a least a few people have had far worse days (and years) than us!

            Knowing Paul’s profound suffering, it’s absolutely astonishing he writes, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” What is this glory? In the original language it means “honor, renown, splendor.” For the Christian, one day, when we get to Heaven, the glory we touch, taste and luxuriate in, will be so wondrous, our past pain will feel infinitesimal. Indeed, it will vanish like a drop in the ocean. Put another way, the glory to come is far greater than the pain now.

However, you may be wondering: “That may be true, but in the meantime, how do we endure the pain, sadness and disappointments of the present?” I humbly contend Paul is teaching us an important principle: To surpass suffering, we wear glory glasses. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “she’s wearing rose colored glasses.” It refers to someone who’s inherently optimistic: the glass is always half full. Their house could be crushed by a tornado, but if their dog, Fluffy, survived, they know they will be all right. In a similar (but perhaps less hyperbolic) way, the Apostle Paul challenged the Christians in Rome, and you and me today, to wear glory glasses: to see our suffering through the lens of glory.

Bottom line, the Apostle Paul encourages us in Romans 8:18 that to surpass suffering, we wear glory glasses. The strongest underdogs view their sufferings through the lens of faith, that is, they look through the lens of glory to come. This is what sustains them during the most vicious of life’s storms.

True Leadership

 

            The 2016 Presidential election was one of the most divisive contests in history. Millions of Americans considered both major party candidates to be flawed and unpopular, albeit for different reasons. However, in times like this, I choose to step back and remind myself of the ultimate leader: Jesus Christ.

One of the most astonishing examples of Jesus’ servant-leadership is found in John 13:1-17. That story reveals at least two things.

First off, Jesus perceived his position. Three times (13:1,3,11) it says, “Jesus knew.” This word means “to be aware of, to consider, to perceive.” What we learn here is that Jesus is highly self-aware, highly self-conscious. What does he perceive, what does he know? First, Jesus knew “The hour” (v.1). Jesus public ministry of preaching, teaching and healing had come to an end. His final hours would be spent with his disciples, preparing them for his death, giving them his final instructions before he goes to the cross. There’s no small talk about the weather or fantasy football. Jesus has a sense of urgency.

Have you ever been with a loved one on his/her deathbed? You don’t shoot the breeze. You dig deep and say what needs to be said. You tell your loved one how much they mean to you. If there are any unresolved issues, you clear the air. And if you don’t know their spiritual condition, you ask if they are right with God, if they’re ready to meet him face to face. There’s an urgency because you are painfully aware that time is fleeting.

Likewise, Jesus knew he would be leaving soon, he would be dying on the cross and so acted with urgency.

Jesus also knew his power (v.3). Jesus was not a victim of circumstances out of his control. Jesus was choosing to die on the cross. The Bible indicates that from all eternity, the Holy Trinity had planned to send Jesus the Son to rescue, heal and restore our world from the effects of sin.

Not only that, but according to Matthew 8, Jesus is powerful: he reigns over sickness, demons and nature. And in John 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, proving he’s the resurrection and the life, meaning he reigns over death. Because Jesus knew his power, he could lay it down.

Additionally, Jesus knew his identity (13:1,13). Jesus is God’s son, and he’s returning home soon. Verses 13-14 say he’s also Teacher and Lord. No one is wiser or more powerful. Simply put: Jesus perceived his position. He knew the hour, his power and his identity.

That’s Jesus. But let me ask you this: who is Jesus to you? Is he just a spiritual or religious teacher? Is he your Lord, your ruler, the one who will judge the living and the dead? Is he your Savior, the one who died on the cross for your sins?

Alright, let’s focus on the second action of Jesus: he loved his disciples by serving them. Normally there was a servant available to wash a guest’s feet. But there were no servants around because of the clandestine nature of this meeting. Jesus took his disciples to a secure location to observe the Passover meal. He intentionally waited until the meal was in progress, then he took off his outer robes and washed their feet. This act was normally reserved for the lowest of servants. In those days people wore sandals and so their feet were covered in dust, sweat, and in some cases, even residual animal dung.

Amazingly, Luke 22 tells us that when the disciples entered the room, they were quarreling over which of them would be the greatest in heaven. They were arguing over the pecking order! If that were not enough, Jesus washed the feet of Judas and Peter, both of whom would reject him in a just a few hours.

Yet Jesus, lovingly, tenderly, without rushing, washed the feet of his twelve disciples. Then Jesus declared “you should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should follow.” Scholar Leon Morris explains: “It is a parable in action, setting out that great principle of lowly service which brings cleansing and which finds its supreme embodiment in the cross.”

During his finals hours on earth, Jesus showed tremendous humility by doing the most menial of tasks with gentleness, love, and joy. And he states, unequivocally, “If you are my followers, you must do the same.” In 13:16 Jesus explains part of our identity as his followers: “no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” In the original language, the word for messenger is “apostle” meaning “sent one.” If you are a Christian, you are a servant of Christ and an apostle, a sent one. You are sent by Jesus to serve others in love, doing the most humble of tasks: shining shoes, taking out the trash, changing diapers, etc. There is no task beneath any Christian, young or old, black or white, rich or poor, male or female, pastors or parishioners. If Jesus went to the cross, we can serve others, even those who reject us and betray us.

Bottom line, Jesus perceived his position and pursued service. Likewise, as Christians, regardless of who is President, we must remind ourselves we are called to perceive our position (as servants and apostles), and to pursue service: at home and at work, with people we care about and people who reject us.

What motivates us to do this? The cross: Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross, the most shameful and humiliating way to die in the ancient world. If Jesus loved us that much, how can we do any less?

 

 

The Way Forward

It’s painful to admit, but we are a divided nation: Democrats vs. Republicans, white vs. black, citizens vs. immigrants, educated vs. less-educated, men vs. women, rich vs. poor, etc. The problem (as I see it) is we tend to define ourselves and others through division or difference. Many people tend to think, “I am not like_____________.”

Unfortunately, our divisions emerge early in life. I will never forget the searing pain of having a child mock my poverty when I was in second grade. I had just moved from Vermont to a small town in Maine. My poor single mom worked hard to put food on the table for her three children. At Christmas time, we didn’t have enough money to buy new gifts to exchange at our school Christmas party. So I cleaned and wrapped a used matchbox car we recently bought at a yard sale, and spent hours making a Santa’s sleigh out of candy canes, colored paper, tape, glue and glitter. When my classmate opened the gifts the day before Christmas vacation, he was not impressed: “Is this car used? What did you make? Is this a Santa Sleigh?” My face burned with embarrassment and shame. I wondered, “Did having less (money, possessions, etc.) make a person less?”

But it’s not just in America. Christian author and social activist Christine Caine describes the shame she experienced her first day of kindergarten at her Sydney school. Christine, who is an Aussie of Greek heritage, opened her lunch box and removed her olive-and-feta cheese sandwich. Suddenly a boy named Wayne shouted “Phew! What’s that awful smell? What’s that stinky stuff you’re eating?” He then called Christine a “wog” (a racial slur) and mocked her mercilessly. Sadly, no one stood up for her. The incident scarred Christine and her school experience for years to come.

As a pastor, I often wonder: are there constructive ways to bridge these divides? As I study the Bible I am convinced the key way to heal our divides is to unite around the hope we have in something that transcends us. Speaking from the perspective of a Christian minister, I believe that hope is found in the Triune God and his work in the cross of Calvary. Moreover I believe remembering together, praying together, singing together and sharing stories of faith build bridges of reconciliation. It’s seeking to create what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”

I am aware of at least two upcoming events in our community that seek to foster hope, reconciliation and unity. On September 11, from 4-7pm, fourteen churches (both local and regional) will be hosting the third annual New England Festival of Hope at Easton’s Beach in Newport. The purpose of the Festival is to bring people together for a time of new or renewed faith, encouragement and community. There will be inspirational speakers, live music, delicious food and fun children’s activities. Admission is free and everyone is welcome, so this is a great event for the family.

I am particularly excited about the speaking line-up, which includes Red Sox great Dwight Evans and his wife Susan; X-Games gold medalist Kevin Robinson (K-Rob), who is back again to do another BMX demonstration; and New England Revolution soccer star Teal Bunbury. This slate includes young and old, male and female, black and white bearing testimony to the power of faith to unite people. Lastly, for this year’s event, since it’s the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we will do a special tribute for first responders and families affected by 9/11. For more information go to www.nefestivalofhope.com

My good friend Pastor Steven Robinson of Crosspoint Church is hosting the third annual New England Prayerfest at the Providence Performing Arts Center on September 16-17, Friday-Saturday. The purpose of Prayerfest is to: “bring churches, pastors, and intercessors together to pray for the problems and sins of our community by asking God to forgive us and heal our land.” This event will be multidenominational and diverse, including both young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For more info go to www.prayerfest.org

Will these two events eliminate all our divides? Of course not. But they are a positive and constructive way of uniting around a common faith that builds bridges of understanding and reconciliation. Wouldn’t you agree, we need more of that in our world?

Your will be done

At our church we’re studying Jesus’ model prayer known as the “Lord’s prayer” (Matthew 6:9—13). Perhaps the most challenging phrase in this prayer is “your will be done.”

Here’s the problem: it seems God’s will is simultaneously clear and unclear to Christians. We know part of God’s will through the Bible. The Ten Commandments are clear: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, Do not steal, etc.

But then we realize God’s will is also unclear. God is God and we are not: He is all-present, all-knowing and all-powerful and we are not. Isaiah 55:9 says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

God’s will and God’s ways are higher than our understanding. Meaning God’s will is also incomprehensible. I am talking about those bewildering moments in life when we ask God “Why did I get cancer?” “Why did my loved one die?” “Why did this horrible thing happen”?

A few years ago, a couple in our church took a painful journey through God’s sometimes incomprehensible will. Their names are Jeff and Erin Richer (they gave me permission to share their story. For more info go to: www.allthingsricher.blogspot.com). Erin was surprised when she found out she was pregnant with their fourth child. Thirteen weeks into their pregnancy they discovered their daughter, named Lydia, had a large sack of fluid attached to her brain. The doctors termed her “incompatible with life” meaning she would be born in a vegetative state. Later on she was diagnosed with Turner’s Syndrome, a rare chromosomal condition that stunts the development of female children. Some born with this condition are disabled but can survive. Yet many others many die in utero or shortly after birth. One doctor advised Jeff and Erin to terminate the pregnancy but after prayer they decided to proceed and leave it in God’s hands. They committed themselves to spending their lives caring for Lydia, whatever her condition. Sadly, she died in utero at twenty-four weeks. I visited them in the hospital before Erin delivered her deceased daughter. They felt pain and anguish but also expressed grace, strength and peace. I was so proud of them and I am still inspired by their example. They believe they will one day meet their daughter in heaven. But honestly, many people looked at their struggle, and asked “Why God?” and “How can this be your will?”

And that’s exactly why we need prayer. Prayer keeps us close to God’s heart and reminds us of his love and goodness. Prayer gives us the strength to press on through our hurt and confusion. I believe the pain of life will make people (even Christians) bitter and jaded unless they learn to pray “your will be done.” It’s a prayer of humility and surrender, but ultimately, it’s a prayer of alignment. Simply put, Jesus taught us to pray to align our will with our Heavenly Father’s will. To pray “your will be done” is praying that our desires and plans will align with God’s desires and plans even if—especially if—we don’t understand his will.

It seems to me we can only pray for alignment if we believe God is our loving Heavenly Father. Author Tim Keller puts it this way: “Unless we are profoundly certain God is our Father, we will never be able to say ‘thy will be done.’ Fathers are often inscrutable to little children. A four-year-old cannot understand many of his father’s prohibitions—but he trusts him. Only if we trust God as Father can we ask for grace to bear our troubles with patience and grace. Well, someone asks, how can we be sure God is trustworthy? The answer is that this is the one part of the Lord’s prayer Jesus himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, under circumstances far more crushing than any of us will ever face. He submitted to his Father’s will rather than following his own desires, and it saved us. That’s why we can trust him. Jesus is not asking us to do anything for him that he hasn’t already done for us, under conditions of difficulty beyond our comprehension.”

Because Jesus prayed “your will be done,” we too can pray “your will be done.” Because Jesus aligned his will with his Father’s will and died on the cross for our sins, we too can align our will with our Father’s will in prayer.