The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

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Living God’s Creative Story

Today is the first day of spring. For someone who is not a fan of winter weather, snow, or cold temperatures the announcement of spring weather has come brings with it the sounds of rejoicing and celebration.

I’ve always have enjoyed spring. Perhaps it is because it reminds me of Spring Break trips with my grandparents to Florida or some other destination. Maybe it is because it means baseball season will soon begin. Or maybe, too, it is because I can get rid of the piles of jackets that you need in the winter.

Spring brings with it a sense of new life and hopefulness that we all need. Think about what takes place around this time each year. Flowers begin to bloom. Trees begin to bud. The grass begins to grow. Life seems to be restored.

I think about those images and I am reminded of the creative work of God. Throughout Scripture, we are reminded that God brings new life out of what seems to be destroyed, broken, or at the point of death. Where we see what cannot be possible, God looks at does something that impossible in bringing life to what seemed to be dead.

We see this in the very first sentences of Scripture. In Genesis 1:1, we are told of how God is the One who took what was nothing and made something. We don’t have to get into the why’s and how’s of that miraculous truth to simply stand in awe of the fact that where there seemed to be an impossibility – nothing – God made something happen.

Further along in the story of Scripture, in Ezekiel 37:1-14, we receive the story of God breathing life into dead bones. God’s creative life brings new hope to what seems to be beyond the capability of doing anything. Once again, God took an impossibility – dead bones – and made something happen.

We see it, again, with the promise of the resurrection. Jesus died on the cross. He was dead on Friday. He was dead on Saturday. On Sunday, the grave was empty. I’ve been to the grave … there was no body in there. Jesus’ resurrection is the victory over the world’s crippling powers of death and destruction. It is the assurance of hope that we claim at Easter that God can take what seems to be impossible – victory over death – and doing the impossible. God always makes something happen!

Our faith promises us that we worship the God who never gives up and is always striving to make something new out of the ashes of the world. This is the story that we claim and participate in through our faith. Yet, I wonder if it is a story that we truly believe.

I suggest that, because is tempting to always see things at face value. That is what the world teaches us to do by taking things as they seem. If something seems like an impossibility, we are taught to give up on it and to be realistic about the situation before us.

This is a mindset that can be found within the church. When we reflect on where we are as a church or community, it is easy to say things like “we might as well close” or “things are not like they used to be.” In doing so, we are focusing only upon what is in front of us and looking at things through worldly measures. Do we have enough people? Are we doing enough to justify the work? Is it worth it to keep going on?

Our discussions about the possibilities of the church’s mission are often guided by the same metrics we use to make decisions about future investment opportunities within a business. Yet, we are a community that is not a business. We are part of the narrative of God’s creative act in the world, which claims that God can do what seems to be impossible.

To believe that, however, we have to be willing to see the possible in the midst of the impossibility that is before us. That requires a change in our attitude of responding to things not out of negatives, but out of the positives. Being part of God’s creative effort invites us to ask ourselves what can God do, and what is God calling us to be a part of, in the midst of what seems bleak and hopeless.

We also have to change our approach from blaming others when things do not go well. In its place, we have to move into a direction of reflecting on what is God inviting us to learn and how might we do things differently from those lessons.

When we change our attitudes and our approach to difficult moments, it takes away the pressure and stresses that can fill our hearts about the church. It also invites us to be part of the grand narrative of God in a deeper way.

I truly believe that no matter the negative situation that faces us in the church, today, that God is capable and able to do more than we could ever imagine through them. We worship the God who takes nothing and makes something happen, and we are invited to be part of that great work.

Moving Forward from 2018

The day after Election Day is always for process stories.

Why did the Democrats win the House of Representatives? Why did Republicans maintain control of the Senate? What does this mean for 2019 in Kentucky? What does it mean for the presidential race in 2020? What does it mean for (insert your favorite cause here)?

Process stories are important. They help us to understand what took place during an election, especially an election as highly contested as yesterday. Turnout was high across the nation and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In Caldwell County, more than 50 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

I’m not as interested in who won or lost, as a follower of Christ, as I am in how we can build move forward beyond the divisions we are experiencing today. How can we move forward as the body of Christ as a response to our political realities?

I believe that is the question that is comes out of our recent conversation about having a Christ-like political engagement. If we truly are to be of Christ and live in the world, then our actions within the political realm – the words we say, the decisions we make, and the actions we take on behalf of others – must reflect the love and hope of Jesus Christ. There must be practical steps to our belief that Christ calls us to be citizens of God’s kingdom who reflect kingdom values in the world.

One of the most important things we can do is pray for our leaders. As we’ve mentioned before, praying is one of the most basic values of a disciples of Jesus Christ. In prayer we call upon God’s blessings, discernment, and wisdom to be upon the person. We are not praying for our agenda to be heard or enacted. What we do pray for is for our leaders to be protected, cared for, and to know that they are a child of God.

At the same time, though, we should be willing to engage those politically different than us. Jesus gives us the model for this. None of his core disciples came from the same background. Some were fishermen. Some were tax collectors. Some were pious. Some were zealots. What brought them together were common values and a desire to follow Jesus wherever he went.

Too often, though, our friendships are limited to those who hold the same affinities as we do. It is why we often hear this line after an election: I don’t know why (insert candidate won) none of my friends voted for them. Much of our political divisions and rhetoric would be eased, I believe, if we were willing to make friends and have conversations with those who come from different backgrounds than us.

This is true not just in the political arena. One of the most glaring divisions in America today is the urban and rural divide. I do not believe the issues and needs in these two areas of the nation are understood by those beyond those areas. That creates a situation where we talk past one another instead of with each other and, at the same time, have a battle for resources and attention. A willingness to understand comes forth from a desire to engage and converse with those from a different background.

Finally, I believe Christ calls us to keep the main thing the main thing. That is to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations and people. That is our most important work and a mission that we often neglect to gain the acceptance of those in political power. Our primary purpose is to make disciples who are empowered and equipped to transform their corner of the world for Christ. We are not called to make Republican Christians or Democratic Christians. We are called to be disciples who are Christ-like in our words, actions, and deeds.

We cannot get distracted by political power in absence to the mission of sharing the love of Christ.

Pray. Engage. Keep to the mission.

If the church does that, then we will lead a revival of love and care into our communities that will share the love of Christ in the midst of our divisions.

A Christ-Like Political Engagement

Every Election Day is special for me. It ranks as one of my favorite days of the year. As I’ve mentioned before, the day for me includes voting as early as possible and, then, staying up until the last vote is counted or the election is determined. Sadly, the day no longer includes the customary pizza as it did during my journalism days.

I’m fascinated with not only elections. I love trying to discern how different races will affect the entire narrative of Election Day. I love looking at how various precinct returns can determine the outcome of an election.

I am a political nerd.

While I love Election Day and following elections, what I’m also intrigued by is how we, as followers of Christ, engage the public arena. I believe we have an important role to play in the public square, but we must be Christ-like in how we live this out. Our engagement must always be guided by the foundations of our love of Christ and not by our partisan desires.

I do not believe it is God’s desire for the church to be a sounding board for our favorite political party. The church, as well, should not be a place where only those of a particular political ideology are welcome. Just as the church is welcoming of people of different races and cultures, so too should the church be welcoming of those from all political ideologies.

This is a cornerstone value for me and my ministry. I believe the church is at its best when we are a large community made of people from different walks of life, urban and rural, black and white, Republican and Democrat. Throughout my ministry, I’ve been blessed to provide pastoral care and leadership to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and those who never get involved in elections. They have each taught me something about the church and our engagement in different issues.

What I desire is to truly model our witness in the public square after Jesus’ own engagement, because, yes, Jesus was political. He was never a partisan in the terms that we would use today, but he was, in fact, willing to engage the public square.

The very nature of his birth was the first such engagement. In Luke’s account of the Nativity, the angels proclaim a message of “good news” to the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. This connects to a practice within the Roman Empire to announce the birth of a new Caesar as “good news.” The birth of Jesus stands and Jesus’ life stands against any claim to kingship and authority.

As well, Jesus’ earthly ministry was filled with encounters that challenged the accepted practices and custom of the time. The testimony of women, for instance, was seen as unreliable, yet Jesus often invited women into discipleship and called the women in the garden to be the first to announce the message of the resurrection. Children in Jesus’ time were often ignored and mistreated, and yet Jesus embraced children and said they had a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ own death came because he was seen as a political threat by the Roman powers in Jerusalem. Jesus was political.

Followers of Christ should be willing and able to speak to the issues of the day. Our engagement in policy matters must come out of our faith in Christ. This is helped by interpreting what Scripture says on an issue through the help of tradition (what has the church said about an issue throughout time), reason (what do we know about an issue), and experience (what is our shared experience on this topic).

We should never shy from being a voice of hope, peace, joy, and love in the public arena as a response to our faith in God. In doing so though, our primary allegiance is to God and not to our partisan loyalties.

On November 6, I encourage you to vote but also to pray for those who are seeking elected office. I know from personal experience how hard and demanding the campaigns for any office is, and so we give thanks to God for those who put themselves in nomination for elected responsibility. As well, let us ponder where God leads us to be a voice of hope, peace, love, and joy through the issues that face us.

We are not a political party, but we are a church. Thanks be to God for that!

What is a Service of Hope?

It started as an ordination project.

Two years ago I had to lead a “fruitfulness project” to fulfill one of my ordination requirements. The project is intended to demonstrate a pastor’s effectiveness in leading a ministry that seeks to make disciples. That is the simplest way of defining the project.

I had a couple of ideas for my project – a study on the Book of Revelation, a youth ministry intern, etc. – but my heart settled on this worship service I had heard about. It was called a Blue Christmas or Longest Night Service.

A Blue Christmas Service or Longest Night Service typically takes place on the first day of winter – the longest night of the year – and recognizes how many of us struggle during the Christmas season. The service is intended to offer hope and expressions of peace in the midst of our struggles. Continue reading

Christmas Eve Message: Ordinary Day and Extraordinary Hope

It was just an ordinary day in the City of Bethlehem.

The population, in those days, was around 1,000 people. That is a little more than double the latest Census estimate for Salvisa. All of those 1,000 people and more were gathered in Bethlehem on that day. The people were under the authority of the Roman Empire, which had no problem throwing its weight around. On that particular day, the people under Rome’s authority were required to return to their hometown in order to be counted. This was an ordinary occurrence for the people in Bethlehem, because Rome made it a habit of doing things to reminded people of their authority and power.

It was also an ordinary day for those outside of Bethlehem. Residing around the hillsides outside of Bethlehem were a group of shepherds. The shepherds were doing their job. They were keeping watch of their sheep to make sure they stayed safe from intruders. Shepherds were not the most beloved group of people. Some tolerated them as those who performed a needed task in society, but the people had little use for them. Others viewed them as thieves, because they would do what was needed in order to survive even if it meant taking from others. On that day they were just trying to live and survive. Continue reading

Keep Persevering

There is nothing better than baseball in October. The thrill of the playoff chase. The tradition of the World Series and hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season. The tradition that the Cubs will lose.

At least, that is my yearly hope. You see, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan which means that cheering for the Chicago Cubs is one of the worst thing you can do in sports. Some friends of mine who share my opinion have gone as far as to say we are “NeverCubs.” My few Cubs friends tell me this is the year. That this is the year the curses will be lifted and that a championship will return to Wrigley Field for the first time since 1908 William Taft was preparing to make William Jennings Bryan the Chicago Cubs of presidential politics. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean.

My few Cubs friends tell me that all their troubles center around a goat named Murphy. Legend has it that a storeowner, Billy Sianis, tried to bring his goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. When he was asked to remove the goat, Sianis became irate said that the Cubs would never win another World Series. The Cubs were up 2-1 in the series and would eventual lose the series.

Truthfully, though, as much as I cannot pull for the Cubs I do admire the perseverance of Cubs fans who continually believe, “This is our year.” Even when things seem too difficult to believe or the season does not go as they would hope they never give up. They continue to believe that something good, another World Series title, is coming their way. Continue reading