Saturday, August 31, 2019

Before Church

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The King of Comeback

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh . . . So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory, beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.   
 ~ II Corinthians 4:7-12;16-18 (ESV)

Sad news reached us recently of the death of Bill Boyd, a great man and brother in Christ.  A veteran, a small business owner, a loving husband, father, and grandfather, Bill was the epitome of integrity, with a great work ethic.  As a church leader he had supported and built ministry that blessed his family and his community.  He was my father-in-law’s lifelong friend, and the two of them had been tearing around getting into trouble since primary school.  Wherever they went, they lifted the spirits of everyone around with their crazy antics and laughter, and you wouldn’t know it from looking at him or hearing him laugh that Bill was: The King of Comeback.
Obituaries tell us the highlights of a person’s life, but if you read between the lines you know there were tough times. Every victory is punctuated by the faith to meet challenges, to face hardship, to overcome obstacles, to grieve sorrows, to heal from illness, to recover from heartache; to come back over and over from troubles and be: The King of Comeback.  Whether these came in military service, building a business, a life-threatening illness for a child, making ministry happen in rural Appalachia, the loss of parents, a child, a grandchild, each time Bill’s faith brought him through, each time he came back.  Over and over he battled cancer, coming back from that dread disease and beating it more than once. He was such an inspiration to me when I faced cancer; if Bill could come back from the brink of death with a full head of hair, so could I.  But after his final battle here on earth he did not come back: HE CAME HOME!
We, too, are the kings and queens of comeback.  The abundant life that Jesus promises us is created in the negative space, times of trusting God when difficulties multiply, trusting God that over and over there is going to be enough grace today for today’s troubles.  Like Bill, we come back over and over and over again, until one day we, too, will come home.  In every situation, we trust God that He will bring us through; bring us through affliction, through being perplexed, through persecution, even through being struck down, because in Christ we carry around the life, the very life of the Son of God, in our bodies.  We are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed because Jesus is with us, giving life to our mortal bodies.  As we age our physical bodies get weaker and weaker, but our spiritual nature gets stronger and stronger.  The life Jesus Christ gives sustains us in the troubles of this world, but it makes us indestructible for eternity.  Walking by faith is how we always move toward life.  The longer we walk with Him, the more life we gain.  So the momentary afflictions of life, of sorrow, of trials and tribulations give way in the end to an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.  That’s when we stop being the queens and kings of comeback and we come home to Heaven, receiving our crowns and stepping into a paradise of unending joy.  Lean on Jesus when the times get tough, and count on Him to bring you through, to come back each and every time, until you finally come home.  Bill will be there with his cowboy boots on waiting to welcome you in.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Before Church: From Life Span to Survival Rate

Sunday, August 25, 2019
“For this is the will of the Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:40

Life.  It is what drives us, that survival instinct that makes us fight to live.  This verse comes from the famous “I am the bread of life” speech the Lord Jesus gives, and we hear, over and over, that He is the source of life, He is the new manna come down from Heaven, and in Him is eternal life. If Christ is our life, if we look on Him and believe in Him for our sustenance, then we will have eternal life, Jesus Christ will raise us up from death, on our last day we will be resurrected to paradise.  That’s His promise.

My expectations were high.  A year out from cancer surgery and radiation, and I had great expectations, but these doctors are cautious fellows.  My two biggest questions: am I cancer free?  How long before the pain goes away?  Answers: not encouraging.  Pain?  Might never go away; scar tissue and residue from the radiation targeting implant may mean lifelong pain.  And “Cancer free”? That’s a label you get after ten years of clean scans, and I’m nine years out from that.  Because after cancer, they stop talking about your life span and start talking about your survival rate.  How long has it been since you were diagnosed? How long have you survived?  And they even call us: survivors. 
Jesus promised us life eternal.  That means my doctors are wrong.  It is not that they aren’t accurate in worldly terms, but I’m going to live forever. My life span doesn’t end when this aging body dies. Jesus said, over and over, that His mission is about life; He came to bring life, abundant life; His job was to make us immortal once again.  Forever life spans!  If we believe in Him, we are raised up on our last day.  We wake up to eternity.  We close our eyes in one world and open them up in a place of no more pain, no more sin, no more sorrow, no more grief, with a brand-new body.  I’m not limited by a survival rate; I am already living in the atmosphere of eternity.  Thanks to Jesus, my life span is forever. 

When we start living as eternal, immortal believers in Jesus it shifts our perspective.  With all of eternity ahead, there is no limiting factor that this world, or the doctors, can place on us.  Our lives are in the hands of God.  We am not just surviving, because of the life of Jesus Christ in us, we are thriving!  Eternally thriving! When troubles come that seem to drain away life from us, we know that Christ is our eternal source of life, the bread of Heaven given to us who believe, a never-ending source of eternal nutrition that will sustain us not just in this life, but forever.  Our life span is forever. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Before Church: Who Do You Think You Are?

Who do you think you are? 

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our sufficiency is from God, Who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code, but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. II Corinthians 3:4-6

Starting something new?  Your internal voice will challenge the new.  Creatures of habit, we humans don’t like change.  If only our consciences were sinless; I could use a little Jiminy Cricket in my life to steer me the right way.  So that internal voice can be right, or it can be wrong, and when I start something new, and maybe you have heard it too, the question comes up: who do you think you are?  Who do you think you are to tell people about God?  Who do you think you are to advocate for life, for suicide prevention?  Who do you think you are, to call people to take career risks that you have avoided for years?  Who do you think you are to interpret Scripture?  Who do you think you are to make sermons, serve communion, or baptize? Who do you think you are to write books?  And to sell them? Who do you think you are?

Most often, it’s of the enemy.  Who am I?  I am a child of the Living God.  I am redeemed, and have the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide me and teach me (way better than Jiminy Cricket!).  I am called by God, entrusted with a ministry.  It may be my church job, it may be my job out in the world, it may be my hobby, but somehow God is going to use me to expand His Kingdom.  And God doesn’t send us out there without resources.  Nothing in the Kingdom of God is wasted.  God gives me experience and education to prepare me. 
I am the mother who lived through the suicide attempt of my daughter.  I am the teacher who went the second mile to not just master mathematics at the collegiate level, but squeezed in a semester in France in order to learn this language well enough to teach it.  I am the mother who has raised five children, children who are all college-educated and employed.  I am the wife of one man, going on four decades now, with deeper joy than I can tell.  I am the seminary graduate, who did not settle for lay ministry but fought through the rigors of a master of divinity program and the ordination process.  All of this came not through me, but through the Spirit of God, the grace of Jesus, because He put before me a path that I could only walk through His Holy Spirit.  He qualifies me, and my sufficiency comes from God Who uses everything in my life to enhance my witness.  

So who am I to do these things?  I am the woman who by life, by faith, by experience, and by education is eminently qualified to share my story, in the hopes that grace will reach new hearts, so they, too, can follow Christ. Who are you?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Before Church: Victims First

Before Church

Sunday August 11, 2019
Confessions of a Church Hopper: Victims First

Isaiah 61:1-5
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God
to comfort all who mourn,
to grant to those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

Brokenhearted, captive, in prison, bound, mourning, living in ashes – I can think of no better descriptors for victims of child sexual abuse.  And when it happens in church, the wound is that much deeper. How do we respond?  It must always be: victims first.
Wounded church, where a youth pastor sexually abused dozens of young children – that’s one of the churches I wandered into unawares.  Unreported for years these allegations recently surfaced, and church leaders immediately called police and church authorities - exactly the right response.  The perpetrator, who had moved on to another church, was removed from his job and arrested. Then the story broke like a storm in the local media.  Internal investigations from the denomination were thorough, and church discipline was imposed by denominational leaders.  One of the requirements was a sermon on the topic of sexual abuse by clergy, and that’s the Sunday I visited. 
Prayer started the service, prayer for the preaching pastor and for all the victims – not just of this pedophile but for all the silent victims who were undoubtedly sitting in the pews – statistically there were dozens more among us.  I cannot imagine stepping into my dream ministry job only to find out that some evil predecessor had muddied the holy water with the foul filth of his unrepentant sin, devouring the souls of children even as he abused their bodies.  This kind of betrayal does not just harm us physically, it is a soul-rending violence that attacks us in a place where we should be most safe: at church.  It ruptures the trust we should naturally have in people who care for us, and has life-long consequences.  As part of their corporate penance, the pastoral team met with every victim, apologized to them, and worked to find them help for recovery.  The preacher also apologized from the pulpit.  He told the victims not to give up on Jesus Christ or on the Gospel, that God always was and is, trustworthy. 
Real healing for sexual abuse victims comes from exorcising the pain, often buried for years in silence and shame.  Victims find healing in finally telling the truth about what happened, and being assured that it was not their fault.  Sometimes they realize, for the first time ever, that a trusted adult targeted them and used a position of authority to make opportunities to molest, rape, and do violence to them.  The shame belongs not to them, but to the abuser, the guilt belongs, not to them, but to the abuser, the punishment belongs not to them, but to the abuser.  Counselors help victims process their emotional and psychological pain, but spiritual healing only comes from Christ.  And how do we offer spiritual healing when the very place of healing was the place of betrayal?  People who have suffered such abuse sometimes come back to a cleansed church, sometimes go to another church, but often stop going to church altogether.  Who can blame them? 
Public confession is hard, but it is the first and right step for healing the church family.  Silence does not protect the church, but reduces it to a mere institution.  We, as God’s people, are not in the business of preserving institutions, we are in the business of healing through grace. Victims first. Our prayers, our witness, our work should be about healing the wounded.  All of us come to Christ with the need to be healed from something; our testimony of our healing should offer hope to those whose wounds have not yet been bound up.  Christ came and suffered to bind up these wounds that are deep in the brokenhearted, exchanging our ashes and mourning for joy, for comfort, for liberty, for the oil of gladness and garments of praise. Real, deep healing makes us God’s planting of righteous oaks, strong and mighty in His power, re-made by grace.  A mere institution may survive the wounds of sexual abuse, but it is a shell, a building, a social gathering.  A loving community of wounded people seeking and offering healing to each other in Christ will not only survive, but thrive as the people of God, the family of God, the church. Walking the humble path of confession and repentance and restitution together is the only way to cleanse the damage of the abuser and bring spiritual healing to those who suffered abuse.
Are you a victim of sexual abuse?  Have you carried the pain and guilt and shame that belongs to your abuser? Let it go. It’s not your fault.  Come to Jesus.  Let Him shoulder this burden for you.  And seek out some help from a pastor and a Christian counselor.  Find a church where faith meets practical healing, help, and prevention of this evil.  God promises to bind up the brokenhearted; let Him start with you.  Spiritual healing is possible, and it is found in churches filled with the Holy Spirit.
Have we learned our lesson yet?  Have the headlines and court cases about sexual abuse taught us about our responsibility as church members?  A good church does not say, “This could never happen here;” a good church takes all possible precautions to prevent sexual abuse, and also has a protocol in place if allegations ever arise that start with: calling the police, suspending the accused, getting help from denominational leaders.  We can’t be like the world, we can’t protect the church like it’s an institution.  The church is not buildings or bank accounts, the church is people.  Soul-winning and soul-healing is what we are about, and that always starts with victims first.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Before Church

Voices Restored ~ Sunday, August 4, 2019

Jeremiah 33:10,11
“Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD:
‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts,
for the LORD is good,
for His steadfast love endures forever.’ 
For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD.”

After thyroid surgery the doctors told my mother that she would get her voice back, in a year.  Sure enough, a year later, her beautiful soprano voice became strong and melodic once more.  More often than not, when we go through a trauma or an illness, it steals our voice; we lose the ability to speak and to sing, and what used to be an instrument of praise fades into silence.  It’s hard to sing when you’re down and out.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is for Judah, who have already been invaded and seen the first wave of exiles go off to Babylon, and who – still stuck in their stubborn idolatry and all its concomitant sins – will see a second invasion that will devastate their country completely, destroy Jerusalem, destroy the Temple of the LORD and raze it to the ground.  But Jeremiah is looking beyond that.  He is looking beyond destruction, beyond 70 years of exile, to a time of return, God’s promise to bring the exiles back to their homeland to rebuild it.  And that is exactly what happens, 70 years later. 

When do we sing?  When do we raise our voices in gladness? We sing in times of mirth, when our hearts overflow with joy, we sing at weddings, we sing when we worship, we sing when we bring offerings, and we sing to give thanks to God. Jeremiah promises that all of these will be restored.

After a heartache, or an illness, or a transition, I sometimes realize, all of a sudden, that I haven’t been singing.  In the film Amazing Grace, when his fight against the slave trade becomes overwhelming, William Wilberforce loses his song.  But singing helps us recover.  Singing a song, especially a song of praise that is special helps us to breathe, helps lift our spirits, helps us connect with God, and helps us heal.

So sing this morning.  Go to church and sing.  It doesn’t matter if it’s good, God calls us to make a joyful noise.  And when you lose your voice, listen to others who still can sing.  Soon you will be singing the songs of Zion, the songs of mirth, of gladness, of marriage, of thanksgiving, and of praise.