Truck, Tent … Soul

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Last summer I discovered a young couple (19 & 20 years old) living in their truck in the shade of a big oak tree at our church – where I’m the still-new pastor. I talked with them a bit, learned a bit of their story, and offered water and restrooms whenever they needed. I invited them to join us in worship on Sunday mornings and was thrilled when they did. He’d been part of the church’s youth group for a time—before my time—when we’d had a guy who connected with the skater crowd; but he was there for the skating and the food, not for the God-talk. She had her own views of God, some rooted in the Bible, but many from her own mind (not unlike many of us!).

They had hopes and hurts: both were looking for work; both had a lot of brokenness in their families; both had struggles with drugs and emotions and mental health. But they were looking for a place to live, and hoped to find it within a few weeks. When she had to leave town with the truck for a few days, he asked if he could set up a tent on an out-of-the-way part of the property. I agreed. But days turned into several weeks, even after she returned; and though they took good care of the area, with the dry heat of summer and the possibility of sparks from the engine, I knew we needed to send them on their way.

I knew they’d both gotten work at a local pizza place and some time later I stopped in to ask about them. They didn’t work there anymore.

It’s been months now. They’ve crossed my mind on occasion but I haven’t seen or heard about them. Until yesterday.

Sitting alone in my office in the afternoon, I looked up when I noticed a car pull into our parking lot. The back door opened and … there he was. When we saw each other through the window, a big smile crossed his face. I walked out to greet him and we both spread our arms wide and hugged each other. “I found God!” he said. Back when he’d sat through our church service, it was pretty much a courtesy; he wasn’t much interested in God. “I was trapped in my sin,” was about how he put it.

Somewhere along the way he decided he didn’t want to go on living the way he had been. And somehow, he figured he needed God. And he found Him. He discovered Teen Challenge, too, which is a Bible-based organization that helps teens—and young adults—recover from life-controlling issues through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, He’s still in the business of healing. And he—my young friend (and new brother)—is about halfway through the Teen Challenge recovery program. And seems to be doing pretty well.

They’re not together anymore, he and she. Last summer, that would have been a big blow. Now he has a relationship with Someone who has given him real life. Full life. Eternal life.

As Christians who try to faithfully and simply show Jesus’ love to others, we don’t always get to see if the seeds we’ve planted (or watered) will sprout and grow. Yesterday I got a glimpse of a small green shoot popping up through the soil.

(Note: I published this first on Facebook notes on 2/2/19.)

Prior Prayers

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Another shooting. A dozen more people killed by bullets. Another argument about gun control and gun rights. Undoubtedly, the words, “our prayers are with the victims and their families,” will be spoken by people of deep faith … as well as by others who never pray yet somehow believe that the promise of prayer is a comfort to those facing deep loss.

I’ve been troubled by the rise in gun violence in our nation, yet have felt at a loss as to any semblance of a solution. I believe in gun rights – and that they ought to be limited. I believe in gun control – and that it, too, ought to be limited. And I believe in confidentiality—between doctor and patient, lawyer and client, clergy and parishioner—and that limits there are necessary.

The challenge is that those three values—gun rights, gun control, and confidentiality—cause us to argue, even when most reasonable people would agree on one goal: we need to reduce gun violence.

There’s something else I believe in: prayer. And not simply as comfort, but as real and powerful … a mountain-moving force.

Or do I? Do I really believe that prayer can not only move mountains, but can move the God who created those mountains? Because if I did believe that, wouldn’t I pray for God to do something about gun violence … before it happens? Wouldn’t I pray for God to somehow help us figure out a way to balance those three conflicting values of gun rights, gun control, and confidentiality? We certainly haven’t figured it out (not that we’ve really tried; we’ve only argued that one outweighs the others).

I was convicted today that I don’t pray enough—or rightly—about these things.

Praying for victims and their families is still good and necessary, but that prayer comes too late. There is a better prayer, a prior prayer: that God would lead our nation to the hard work of solutions, until prayers for victims are no longer needed.

A Call to Prayer

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Prayer is, in one sense, the simplest thing in the world; it is conversation with God, relationship with the Creator in whose image we are created. Prayer draws us close to a God willing to call us—as he called Abraham—friend.

Yet in another sense, prayer is the most difficult task we can undertake. After all, that same Creator is infinitely greater than us, unimaginably distinct in spite of the image we share; and in prayer, we dare to step into the throne room of the Almighty, in which Isaiah cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For … my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty!”

For most people I know, prayer is difficult for other reasons, too. It is like wind blowing across a desolate, cloudless landscape: we feel it, but have no sense of its impact, no movement to suggest that it is doing anything. In the absence of visual evidence, we begin to believe that prayer has no effect; it doesn’t do anything. And seeing nothing, we cease to believe in prayer.

This is one reason we need to pray with others: to increase our faith. The late Henri J.M. Nouwen, Catholic priest and author, writes this:

“We cannot live a spiritual life alone. The life of the Spirit is like a seed that needs fertile ground to grow. … It is very hard to live a life of prayer in [an environment] where no one prays or speaks lovingly about prayer.”

(In “Here and Now”)

Most of don’t live in an environment with people who “pray or speak lovingly about prayer.” We live, rather, in a world that believes prayer to be a superstitious crutch, “the last resort of people who have run out of ideas.”* Between our own wavering belief and the disdain of those around us, prayer becomes a meaningless, fruitless exercise; a religious ritual from a bygone era.

I want to rescue prayer from this meaninglessness. What is truly needed, though, is for prayer to rescue us from our despair.

This is why prayer together is so essential.

When we pray together, we cultivate the soil of our souls, nurturing that seed of the Spirit. Our own prayers are fertilized by the faith of others, and fertilize their faith in turn. Together, we boldly enter that awesome throne room of the Almighty. Together, we bow humbly in his presence, acknowledging both our unworthiness and his invitation, “Come!” Together, we agree that God delights in us, is pleased by our worship, enjoys our presence with him. Together, we press through the distractions that inhibit our own prayers and arrive at the place of communion with God and with each other.

And so, my invitation: Find a few people and pray together each week in November. (At my church, I’m inviting everyone to pray together before our services on Sunday. That would be a good time to pray with your church, too. Your pastor would love it!)

Let’s find out what God will do in us and through us as we pray together.

*So wrote atheist Hemant Mehta in The New York Times, June 27, 2013. (https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/27/should-atheists-pray/prayer-is-useless-and-has-a-downside. Accessed online 10/30/18.)

Who Is This Woman?

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I recently started a new sermon series at the church I pastor. The series is called Scars Have Stories* and each week we’ll look at an individual in the Bible whose life is marked by pain, grief, and loss. We’ll also see how God uses that brokenness to bring redemption to that individual and to others.

The first person we met isn’t named in the Bible; she calls herself simply, “a Samaritan woman” (see John 4). Today we often refer to her as “the woman at the well,” because that’s where Jesus met her. For those of us who have been around church for most of our lives, this woman is just one of many familiar faces: seen but not known, except by what our pastors have told us. But she may not be who we think she is.

You have heard it said: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). Then he tells her what she already knows: that is, she’s a dirty rotten sinner that no one loves, but he’ll love her, anyway. As a result, her life is radically changed and all the townspeople who know her see the change, come to meet Jesus, and believe in him, too. It’s an incredible story of evangelistic grace. But what if that’s not who she was?

But I tell you: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). [No change yet, right?] But instead of poking away at her as if she’s a dirty rotten sinner, Jesus responds as if she’s an inquisitive spiritual seeker^. He listens to her questions and patiently redirects them until he has the opportunity to reveal himself to her … using that ancient name of God that no one would pronounce but she would undoubtedly know: I AM. Then this seeker runs to her neighbors and asks, “could this possibly be the Messiah?” They come, meet the stranger at the well, invite him to stay a couple days, and end up also believing.

Two women. Two stories. One Savior. Either woman could be who Jesus met. Either story could be true (we’ve seen both in other pages of Scripture). But I think this second woman, the inquisitive spiritual seeker, better fits the aim of John’s gospel, which is all about believing (see John 20:31). It also fits better with the immediate context of that gospel, which includes two other encounters Jesus had with spiritual seekers. In the preceding chapter (John 3), Jesus is approached at night by a religious leader, Nicodemus, who is also asking questions – and,  because of his great learning, is a bit slow to understand the answers Jesus gives.

Earlier still (John 1:43-51), Jesus had met a doubting seeker named Nathanael; Nate had a hard time believing that anything—or anyone—good could come from the backwater town he’d heard Jesus was from … until Jesus told Nate he’d seen what he could not have seen: Nate, sitting in the shade of a fig tree (and probably eating a nice, juicy fig). That divinely-inspired insight convinces Nate that Jesus is the Son of God.

Meanwhile, back in Samaria…. Many people believe that when Jesus reveals to the woman that he knows about her five previous husbands (and the arrangement with her current beau), he’s pointing out her sinful lifestyle. Remembering his encounter with Nathanael, though, I think it’s more likely that Jesus is using that same divinely-inspired insight to convince the woman that he is the Messiah. Just as that was the kicker for Nate, so it is for the Samaritan woman.

So, what’s the big deal? I think we can take three things from this:

  • first, a renewed view of Scripture. It’s easy to look at anecdotes like this encounter between Jesus and a woman and see only what’s on the surface. But when we look deeper (context, author’s purpose, etc.), we see something very different; we get a better look into what God is doing, a better understanding of who he is and how we works.
  • second, a renewed view of women in Scripture. If we’re willing to admit it, we will see that women in Scripture are central to the advancement of God’s kingdom. In a culture (then) that devalued women, Jesus elevated them; we must, too. We are all sinners saved by grace, and this woman is no exception. But that isn’t the central truth of her story; the central truth is that because of her testimony, an entire Samaritan village believed in the Messiah — a radical, counter-cultural transformation.
  • third, a renewed view of our own brokenness and loss. Sin or no sin, you don’t move through five marriages without brokenness and loss. Whether the Samaritan woman had buried five husbands (possible), been divorced five times (possible but not likely), or some combination of the two (probable), she undoubtedly grieved what was or what might have been. But in spite of—perhaps even because of—that loss, Jesus met her and used her to draw an entire community to himself. He can do that with our brokenness, too.

Who is this woman? We only know what the Bible tells us. But we can be sure of this: God’s promise remains:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

CREDITS:

*Thanks to Dr. Dan Allender for that phrase, “scars have stories.”

^Thanks to Dr. Lynn Cohick, Dean/Provost of Denver Seminary, for introducing me to this different view of the Samaritan woman … and for generously sharing her research and writings.

Holiness Matters

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Make every effort to live in peace with everyone, and holiness; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

Working through these two verses was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve done in sermon preparation. A lifelong follower of Jesus, I was challenged, convicted, and amazed at how important holiness really is throughout Scripture – from Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to Revelation.

What I realized is that my holiness is essential to our church’s health. And I need to work at holiness. Yes, God sees me as holy, righteous, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection; but time and again, the Bible gives us the command to be holy.

But my holiness isn’t only up to me, and yours isn’t only up to you: we are instructed to help each other strive for holiness. “See to it” translates a word that carries the meaning of oversight – we’re supposed to look out for each other, hold each other accountable, help each other. That’s a challenge, of course, because we all err; we all fall short; we all sin.

Before beginning my message, I told our church, “This matter—holiness—is something that can propel our church forward or hold us back. I want it to propel us forward.”

For one of the few times in my ministry, I wrote out a full manuscript of the message and I’m making it available to the folks in my church. If you’d like a copy, you can download it here.