Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

Why are we here?: Sermon for January 18, 2015

So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?

I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?

After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?

10494762_877906185595314_459548515296640538_nNow, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?

So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.

And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.

I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.

So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.

Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.

In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.

So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.

First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.

And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.

And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.

When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.

That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.

And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.

Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?

I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.

Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.

And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.

That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.

And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.

They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.

How to Be a Pentecost Church: Five Pointers for Congregations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.

So why does the church sometimes miss the point?

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No, really. This Pentecost stuff is going to be fun.

We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.

The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Check out your social media presence.

If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.

But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?

And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

The Facebook picture that went viral.

Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.

2. Get out in your community.

Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.

But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.

3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.

The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.

I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.

For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)

Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.

Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.

4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.

So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?

Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.

I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.

I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.

From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.

Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?

It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.

5. Be willing to keep being transformed.

Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.

 

Shaking Up the Living in the Valley of the Dead: Sermon for April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

37:2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

10003447_10151948032596787_1474327605_n-137:3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

37:4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

37:5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

37:6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

37:7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.

37:8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

37:9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

37:10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

37:11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’

37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

37:13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

37:14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

A few years ago, when Heidi and I got married, we had a little logistical problem. When I had been the only one living in the house, there had been plenty of room for my clothes in the closet and in the one dresser. But when Heidi moved in that changed, and we started needing more space.

So we did what any newly-wed couple did in the aftermath of the big day: we went to Ikea and we bought some dressers. Many of you have probably been to Ikea, but if you haven’t let me explain. The idea is that the furniture is fairly inexpensive, in part because it comes unassembled. You load these flat boxes in your car and drive them home and find yourself faced with dozens of pieces and bags full of nuts and bolts and washers.

And, I like to think I’m pretty handy. I have helped to build actual furniture, and I know my way around a toolbox. But this took forever. There was a lot of try to bang things into place, a log of getting frustrated, and a lot left over pieces. And I’m still not sure where those were supposed to go.

I was thinking about that because while I was reading today’s Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been exiled along with many of the rest of his people to Babylon. And people would come to him and he would share his prophecies.

And these were a people who needed two things: honesty, and hope. And in his prophecies Ezekiel brought both. First he told the truth. He talked about the exile, and he talked about the ways that the people had fallen short of God’s expectation. He talked about how they were in a place that they never expected, and about how everything had changed.

But then he also talked about hope. He talked about how one day they would return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the temple would be rebuilt, and they would find new life. And he had this vision that is perhaps his best known: the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel is led by God to this valley that is filled with bones. Layers upon layers. And there is no sign of life anywhere. And it looks like the epitome of hopelessness and death and destruction.

And God says to Ezekiel, “do you think these bones can live again?” I would probably have said “they look pretty dead, God”. But you should probably never count God out in these things. Even still Ezekiel doesn’t say, “yes, of course, you are God, anything is possible for you.” Instead Ezekiel just says “oh God…you know”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but a start.

God tells Ezekiel to start to prophesy. In other words, start talking about the future Ezekiel. And as he does, God starts working too. The bones come together and connect again. And then they become flesh and blood again. And then, God tells Ezekiel to keep talking, and something incredible happens. They are filled with breath again, and the ones that moments ago had just been bones stand up and breathe, and are filled with new life.

God tells Ezekiel that the bones were symbols of the people of Israel, who had fallen mightily. And God shows him that they will be brought back to their feet. They will find new life. They will live again. God promises that. God gives them hope.

Now it’s hard to compare my little dressers to an entire people. But here’s what both stories tell me – putting things together is hard work. Sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you don’t think there’s much of a chance to get things right. Sometimes you get frustrated and wonder if it is all worth it.

But sometimes, despite all of this, you know that you have to keep trying. And you have to keep putting all the pieces together. And that’s what I want to talk about today, because I believe that every Scripture we read has insights for our lives, and this is no exception. And I think this passage could be used to teach us about a lot of things: our personal lives, our families, our friends. But today I want us to think about what it means for those of us who are trying to be the church.

I’ll say this first: church is sometimes hard. Community is hard. Learning to live together and work together and serve God together is sometimes hard. It’s true in every church I know. There are good times when everything seems to be going well. And there are tougher times when it might feel like we are all trying to assemble the same dresser together, and nothing is coming out right.

And those are the times when you wish that God could just say the word, and all the pieces would come together like those bones in that valley, and new life would be breathed into all of us. Well, here’s the reality. I think we can. I think we can ask God to do all those things, and I think God will do them. But I think God needs us to do some work too.

God didn’t tell Ezekiel “just stand there and watch this”. God said to Ezekiel, “prophesy”. And, like I said, God was telling Ezekiel to talk about the future. God was telling Ezekiel to tell the truth, but to also tell the hope. Only when that happened did God start to show him what was possible.

And so, I want to ask those of us who love this church, those of us who love this church, what does this have to do with being church. Because I’ve said it many times, as have many others: church is not something we do one hour a week. Church is who we are every hour of every day. We are the church.

And with that in mind, I want us all to think about this question together: what’s the difference between being a church-goer, and being a disciple?

Think about that for a minute…how are those two different? Let me start by saying this…there’s nothing wrong with being a person who goes to church. I’m glad that you all do, and I’m glad you are here. And, really, to be a disciple, I think you need to be a church goer because I think that we who would follow Jesus all need a community of Christian faith.

But being a church-goer is not the same as being a disciple. Anyone can come on Sunday and sit in the pew for an hour and then leave. And that’s fine. But being a disciple is a whole lot harder.

I used to be a church-goer. But later on, I tried to become a disciple. I don’t always do it well, but I try. And here are just a few things I have learned in my own walk about being a disciple, and not a church-goer:
When I was a church-goer, it used to be about going to church. Now it’s about being the church.
When I was a church-goer, it was about how the church was spiritually feeding me and meeting my needs. Now it’s about how the church can feed and meet the needs of others.
When I was a church goer it was about seeing how others in the church weren’t measuring up to my expectations for them. Now it’s about seeing how I can help be the church with them.
When I was a church-goer it was about being with my friends. Now it’s about being a part of communities where not everyone gets along but we work together anyway.
When I was a church goer it was about how the church could pull together enough resources to fund a building and a budget and a bunch of line items so that we could sustain ourselves. Now it’s about how the church can use those resources to build a thriving ministry that reaches everyone.
And when I was a church-goer, it used to be my church. Now it’s God’s church.

Those are just a few. Maybe you can think of some of your own as well. And in all these things, this is what I have learned: being a church-goer is a lot easier than being a disciple. But being a disciple is the most rewarding thing I have ever tried to do. I say tried there, because I’m still stumbling along…and I’m not getting it right even half the time. But then again, the original disciples weren’t either. And yet, they kept trying.

I’ll close with this. In a few moments we will be receiving Communion together. And Communion is really about community and reconciliation. Our reconciliation with Christ, and our reconciliation with one another. We all sit at the same table, and we are all lifted up by Christ to sit at a much larger table with believers we do not even know. And, sometimes, we even sit at that table with other disciples with whom we might rather not sit. But like those bones in the valley, God sometimes joins us once again. God somehow calls us into new life. God puts us back together. God brings hope.

As we who would be disciples approach the table today, may God lift us up the way God lifted up those dry bones. And may we be knit together and stood up on our feet and given the breath of life. Because we are disciples. And we have work to do. Amen.

Dreading Lent: An Alternative Proposal

IMG_2223A few weeks ago I was standing in the check-out line of our village market. The selection of cards by the cash register had just made their changeover from Valentine’s Day to Easter, despite the fact Lent had not yet even begun. That’s not a huge surprise, of course. The Easter candy has been out for weeks now.

But on this day, one of the cards struck my eye. The front read “The best part about Easter is the Lent is over.” They lost the theologian in me right there because, oddly enough, I’ve always thought that the best part of Easter was the whole Resurrection thing. But I opened the card anyway and found this in the center: “I really hate giving up stuff I love”.

My first thought was, “then you’re really going to hate Christianity”. I say that because, as Bonhoeffer and others have reminded us, discipleship is costly. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he told his disciples to sell all they owned and follow him. Sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith.

But my second thought was about how so many people believe that “giving something up” is what Lent is all about. If you are around church folks at all the week before Lent you’ll hear the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” more than a few times. And you’re likely to also hear a list of everyday items: meat, sugar, soda, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate, or even Facebook.

And, if that works for you, go for it. If giving up some sort of indulgence deepens your spiritual walk during these forty days, then no one should tell you not to do it. But, if you’re like most people I know, giving something up for forty days feels more like running a marathon.  For that reason too often people of faith approach Lent with the dread with which most people approach the dentist. By the time they get to Easter Sunday they can’t wait to tear into a Snickers bar or sign back on to Facebook again. And sometimes they have a sense that they’ve run a long race, but nothing has really changed.

Again, maybe it’s different for you, and that separation from potato chips or red meat has deepened your spiritual life in a meaningful way. But, if it hasn’t, I want to suggest that maybe “giving up” is not the only way to observe a holy Lent.

What if instead of giving up you took something on? What if you added dedicated prayer time each morning? Or, what if you committed to reading a couple of chapters of Scripture each day? What if you took on the challenge of going to worship every week during Lent, with no excuses?

And, what if you took something on that could, in some small way, change the world? What if you gave an hour each week to volunteering at the food bank? Or what if you gave up using plastic bottles in order to help the environment? What if you drove less and walked more?

Of course all of these things still require some degree of “giving up”. If you pray or read Scripture, you may have to “give up” some time you’d normally spend online or watching television. If you volunteer some extra hours you may have to give up a few hours of downtime. If you make an environmentally conscious choice you may have to give up the convenience of driving somewhere quickly or grabbing a bottled water.


IMG_2224But you may find you’re giving up other things too. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of hopelessness. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of helplessness. Your feelings of isolation. Your feelings of disconnection. Your feelings of insignificance.

All of those can be pretty incredible things to give up for Lent.

In the end, Lent is not about a forty day marathon of deprivation. It’s about looking inside, finding the places where we feel disconnected to God, and taking up the challenge of going deeper. It’s about walking with Jesus for forty days because we are so overwhelmed by his love for us. And, it’s about preparing for what is next. Because the empty tomb is not the finish line. It’s just the start of a long and wonderful journey. And Lent is a time to get ready.

Questioning Advent: Day 19 – Cheese Grits

Copyright, Southern Living

Copyright, Southern Living

I really like cheese grits. I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon and went to college and seminary in Atlanta, where I solidified my passion for cheese grits. Cheddar grits are great. Cheddar grits with a little bit of jalapeño diced up in them are even better.

But now I live in New England, land of oatmeal. Occasionally there will be sightings of cheese grits at restaurants in the bigger cities, offered as a special by some exiled Southern chef, but those meals are few and far between. Once I took an extra order home for breakfast from a restaurant in Northampton. The waitress encouraged me to put maple syrup on them. Sacrilege.

The other day Heidi said that she wanted to make me pulled pork barbecue and cheese grits. She had never made them before, but she’s a good cook. I figured that if any Yankee could pull them off, it was her. Which is why I found myself searching through a Vermont grocery store this week, desperately seeking some sort of package of grits. It didn’t look promising, but finally, under boxes of oatmeal, and Cream of Wheat, and whatever else passes for acceptable substitutes for what I believe must surely be God’s favorite breakfast food, I found a sad little canister of quick grits made by a less-than-trusted brand.

Better subpar grits than no grits, right? My heart sank as I put them in the cart.

In Advent we prepare to remember something that the world did not expect. There may have been signs that something special was coming 2000 years ago, but no one knew how and no one expected the way it would come. When people went looking for a Messiah, wouldn’t they have looked for a strong and powerful man? One who was rich? One who was well-known to the religious powers-that-be? Would they really have ever looked for a baby born in a barn behind the inn, with an unwed woman as his mother?

But that’s how Jesus did come. And that’s how Christ still comes today.

Last night we had cheese grits with dinner. I can say without a doubt that they are the best grits I have ever eaten. They were perfectly cooked, wonderfully complemented with cheddar, and slightly spiced with the peppers. I turned to Heidi and joked, “well done, thy good and faithful Yankee.” I never thought the best grits of my life would be cooked by a upstate New York girl in a house in Vermont.

But really, I should expect the unexpected. I should expect that because I’m a follower of the one who came to be with us, to transform this world, not in power and might, but as a child. And, like I said, that’s how Christ still comes today: unexpected, lighting up the most lonely and desolate places, changing everything. Jesus still comes into this world in ways that are as surprising as outstanding grits coming out of a Vermont kitchen. And if we just open our hearts up to the possibilities, we will find him all around us, even in those unexpected places. Especially in those.

Question: What surprising places have you seen Jesus this Advent?

Prayer: Holy God, you send our son to bless us in the most unexpected places. As we approach Christmas, open our hearts up to Christ’s presence. Help us to see all the ways that Christ is breaking into our lives and into the world. And give us the joy that comes from finding Christ’s surprising gifts in surprising places. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 13 – Breakfast

294090_808396564688_2465085_nMy wife and I have a routine. Every Friday morning, before we both get to work, we try to have a breakfast date together. Each week we rotate between our favorite breakfast spots around our valley. It’s not a big valley. We tend to go to same places again and again. But there’s one place I’ve never been able to take my wife. At least not until today.

In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded our community. Heidi and I hadn’t been together long, and I hadn’t had a chance to take her yet to Dot’s, the iconic small town diner in Wilmington. We had been planning to go the week the storm hit, but we never made it. By the time the rain stopped, Dot’s had been ravaged by the river that flows below it. Later that day we walked the streets around Dot’s, stepping over the pavement the waters had literally ripped from the road.

For the last two years and four months Dot’s has sat closed. The whole building had to be salvaged, moved back from the river, and rebuilt. For a while it wasn’t clear whether or not it would ever reopen. It became a symbol of the flood’s devastation, and the town’s tenuous recovery.

The first Christmas after the flood was hard here in the Deerfield Valley. We are a seasonal economy, based in large part on skiing, and it was a bad year for snow. Add to that the number of people who were rebuilding homes, laid off from businesses, or dreading the next storm, and the holidays took on a melancholy tone. Recovery is a process, and hope is often the last thing to get rebuilt.

In Advent we look for the coming joy, but we don’t ignore the realities of life. We acknowledge that this is often a broken, unfair, and incomplete world. We proclaim that we are a people more in need of hope, peace, joy, and love. We tell the truth. Because, if we know the truth about this world, if we don’t acknowledge that it is so in need of change, why would the promise of a new and better life in Christ mean anything to anyone?

Yesterday morning, the doors of Dot’s opened again. The counter was full. The tables were spread with pancakes and Vermont maple syrup. This morning we drank our coffee, ate the bacon and waffles, and said “hello” to our neighbors. The diner looked a little different, but there it was, perched above that same river and filled with new life. Destruction and disaster did not have the final say.

In Advent we proclaim a message of potential. We tell the story of what is to come. We pray for change. We wait for, and participate in, the birth of something new. We refuse to let devastation have the last word. We rebuild, not in ignorance, but with faith in the potential of the one who came and who is coming to us still. And in our rebuilding, we say “we are ready”.

Question: In your life, what has been destroyed, and what have you rebuilt in faith?

Prayer: God, you will not let the waters destroy us, you will not let the fires consume us, you will not let hatred crush us, and you will not let destruction win. In these season of Advent, help us to build. Let us build up the places of love in our hearts, the places of peace in our relationships, the places of hope in our communities, and the places of joy in the world. And let us see the potential for new life in everything. Even pancakes. Amen.

If you’d like to read more about Dot’s, check out this article that came out in the New York Times the day after this devotional was published: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/us/in-vermont-a-town-that-would-not-let-its-diner-go.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Questioning Advent: Day One – Hope and Christmas Trees

West Dover Congregational Church's 2013 Christmas tree.

West Dover Congregational Church’s 2013 Christmas tree.

Last Friday, on the day after Thanksgiving, one of my church’s members and I went out to another family’s property and cut down the church’s Christmas tree. It’s a big tree this year, tall and round, and we struggled a couple of times as we dragged it back up a hill and threw it in the back of his pick-up. Nevertheless, we eventually got it to the church, set it up, and left it there for the children of the congregation to decorate today.

We do this every first Sunday of Advent. Years ago the parishioners who own the land where we cut down the tree bought a bunch of saplings at a fundraiser. They planted them in the ground, and by a few years back they were growing big enough to serve as Christmas trees. That couple goes to Florida every winter, but before they leave they tie a ribbon around one tree for the church to cut down. It’s their gift to us every Advent.

This morning the tree was there in the sanctuary as we lit the first Advent candle, the one that traditionally signifies hope. I thought about those little saplings that were bought years ago, and the hope that the man who planted them had for them. And I thought about how they grew into trees so big that they had to be dragged breathlessly up hills.

For me, Advent is about waiting and watching. In Advent we look at the world through eyes that want to see Jesus. That means we look at the world through hopeful eyes and, in many cases, we learn to see what is already right in front of us. If we look closely, we just might find that all around us there are already reminders of Christ’s presence. Maybe even in the most mundane of things. Maybe even in the hope that makes someone buy a few saplings and plant them, hoping that one day he can give them to his church as they wait and watch for Christ together.

Last year I undertook a spiritual discipline of writing daily Advent devotionals. I shared them on social media, but mostly I did them for a selfish reason: I am much better at seeing Christ around me in Advent when I make myself take time everyday to look. This year I’m doing these devotionals again for the same reason, though also with the hope that might speak to others on this same journey. This year I’m adding something else: a question a day. Sometimes it will just be one for reflection. Sometimes it will spur us to some sort of action. But I hope that always it will cause us to see Christ coming, and Christ’s presence, more clearly. So here’s todays:

Question: As you unpack Advent and Christmas decorations, which one speaks to you most about the hope that Christ brings to us all?

Prayer: God, help me to see Christ’s presence today in the ordinary and the extraordinary, and show me the places where hope has already grown into blessing. Amen.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?: Sermon for May 26, 2013

Text: Romans 5:1-5

When I was in my freshman year at my college, I was in a leadership program. It was a little like Outward Bound, we climbed rocks, and did high ropes courses, and pushed ourselves past what we thought that our limits were. And the joke throughout the whole trip, whenever we were about to do something that seemed dangerous or impossible, was that someone would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

It was a good joke for the weekend, but for a while after that trip I began to really embrace that way of thinking. Young adult years are often full of change, and it seemed like a good life outlook because it meant that everything was an opportunity for growth. Whenever I faced something difficult or challenging I just shrugged and said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

And then I finished college, and then seminary, and took a job as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. And all of a sudden things got a little deeper and a little more real. I spent a lot of time with parents who had lost, or were loosing, children. And I saw their utter devastation. And all of a sudden, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounded pretty trite. Because these parents, they were alive but, at least in the aftermath, they weren’t any stronger. In fact, the exact opposite was true. This wasn’t the challenge of a rock wall set up to build character. This was something far more devastating, and far less deliberate.

At first reading, today’s passage from Romans sounds sort of live that motto I heard back then. Paul gives us this sort of chain reaction where he tells us that suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope. And this passage could be mistaken to mean, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Just live through something tough, and you will be better for it

But the meaning is much deeper than that. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, where he has never visited before, and he is telling this community about himself. And he is talking to a divided people. Some members of the church there come from the Jewish community and believe that the law they have known their whole lives most be upheld. And others are Gentiles, and they don’t understand why they are being told that they have to get circumcised and keep certain commandments. And the community is divided, which means that is is susceptible to false teachings. And so Paul writes this letter to the Romans to talk about grace and how we are not saved by what we do, but instead by what God does for us. And he writes this particular part about hope.

Now, hope is something you can’t buy, and yet hope sells like nothing else. The people who write ads know this, and so we will buy anything that promises us a sliver of hope from a new medication to a new laundry detergent to a political candidate. But Paul is talking about something deeper here. The sort of hope you can’t buy. Authentic hope, which comes from God.

And we have this very brief passage about hope that out of context is misleading. It seems to say that you will be better for your suffering. And on some level, ultimately, that may be true. But we have to be careful not to reduce it to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we have to be sure that we are not saying that God wills suffering upon us to teach us lessons or to make us better people

In the wake of the tornado this week in Oklahoma, it’s important that we make that distinction. After every disaster, natural or human-made, there are always a few voices that pop up in the media saying that God did this and that this happened for a reason. Usually they say it’s because God wants to teach us something. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

One of the best sermons I ever read came from a minister named William Sloane Coffin. And he was preaching the Sunday after his beloved son was killed in a motorcycle crash. And he tells this story about the first days after the crash and how a woman he didn’t really know came in carrying these quiches she had baked for him, and she sighs and says “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

He was grieving, and it rubbed him the wrong way, and he got up and flew after her and said, “I’ll say you don’t.” And he went on to say that God doesn’t go around causing accidents and crashes because it’s God’s will. Coffin says God doesn’t go around with a hand on a trigger waiting to inflict pain. And he says finally that when his son’s motorcycle went into the water, “God’s heart was the first to break”.

It’s a good reminder. God does not make tornados hit Oklahoma. God does not give children cancer. God does not will us to kill one another. God does not cause car accidents. Instead, diseases happen, wars are fought, and accidents occur. And in the midst of it, God cries with us.

At this stage in Paul’s life, he had suffered mightily. He had lost everything, been imprisoned, and been beaten. And yet, he had found hope. Not through his suffering, but through the knowledge that God had upheld him in the midst of it. And it was that knowledge that made him such a convincing advocate.

It is because of what he had endured that he was able to talk about how suffering had transformed him, and had shaped his character, and had given him hope. It was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was instead a place where God’s grace became most real to him. Strength did not come from pain, but from an experience of finding hope in that pain.

I don’t believe that everything on earth that happens is God’s will. I’ve stood in too many Emergency Rooms with grieving parents to believe that. But I do believe that nothing happens in God’s world that God cannot transform in some way for good.

When I was in seventh grade, a neo-Nazi subculture began to flourish in the area I was in school. It was sickening and it was deadly. And I had an English teach who announced one day that we would have a guest speaker. That day a woman with a slight accent came to speak to my class, and she told us the horrors she had seen in her life and about what the reality of human evil can do. And she rolled up her left sleeve, and showed us all that tattooed numbers that had been given to her on the day she arrived at a concentration camp

God did not will the Holocaust. God did not will her suffering. But in the aftermath of what was then unchangeable, God’s grace worked through her to give her strength, and to testify to what unchecked hatred could do. To show those few who embraced a movement they did not really understand what its logical end was. God had not willed her suffering, but God had transformed her character and used it to give the world hope.

The same is true in many of our lives though, thankfully, usually less dramatically so. Think of the people you most respect. Do you respect them for what they were easily given in life? Or do you respect them because there is something in their life that they overcame and were so transformed by that it affected who they were?

The people I respect most, have not had easy lives. They are the people who have faced adversity, and have been transformed by grace.They’ve overcome injury, or addiction, or hatred, or fear, or pain. And have tried to share the hope they received with others.

My dad would be embarrassed if I told you this story, because he’s not the kind who tells stories like this, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I just spent a week with him, and he’s on my mind.

Growing up I knew my dad had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I had always assumed he had a desk job. Only in last ten years or so I learned that wasn’t the case. And sometimes he was really in the thick of things.

I asked him once, “Were you scared”? Because as far as I knew at that point my dad had never been scared of anything in his life. And he looked at me and said “of course I was scared”.

I realized then that this man who had always taught me to stand up to prejudice, to be myself, to forge ahead even when I was scared, who had taught me about hope, actually knew what he was talking about.

I think that’s what Paul may have been talking about. Because the people who have walked through the hardest things in life, the people whose characters have been tested the most, and the ones who ultimately emerge with hope, are the ones who manage, by God’s grace, to bring hope to the world.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

No.

What doesn’t kill us, simply doesn’t kill us.

But God’s grace in the face of our struggles is what ultimately makes us stronger. And through that grace, in the most difficult of times, we find endurance. And in that endurance we find character. And it is that character that gives the world hope. Amen.

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