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Posts Tagged ‘God’s Nature’

The Import of Story

I recently told you about a great a superlative book I read recently called The Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson (pick up a copy here) (It’s the third in the Wingfeather Saga).  I thought I would let you know about how it helped me in a sermon and in a hospital visit.  As I was preaching on Sunday it came to me – a quote from the book.  I held up my finger (indicating that everyone should wait a moment) walked over to the piano and picked up a pen and wrote a note to myself in my notes…where I could use this quote.  I was preaching on the story of Joseph.  Actually, I’m trying to preach a spring/summer series on the larger story we’re a part of.  We started with Adam and Eve, hit Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and this week was Joseph.  Kind of hard to do.

You have to tell a long story and then land on one particular scripture passage in the middle or at the end and draw out of it what God has to say.  Anyway, it was Joseph this week.  I told his long up and down story: Up – Dad’s favorite, Down – Brothers sell him into slavery, Up – become slave-owner’s favorite, Down – thrown in jail for not sleeping with someone, Up – become head prisoner/warden, Down – have to tell someone that their dream means they’re going to die soon, Up – Become lord of all Egypt.

After telling the story we read the part where he was reunited with his brothers and says, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:8).  And in the middle of the story I remember this line from The Monster in the Hollows, “Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well. That is His way.” ~Artham Wingfeather.  Dang! I wish I could write like that.  It fit well into the sermon, but then, on a hospital call it worked well, too.

The 6th floor of the hospital has a wing for mental health.  I was on the 6th floor of the hospital on the last day of May visiting a friend.  She asked me why all this was happening to her, and why God would put all this hardship in her life.  What possible good could come out of it all?  As is the case in many situations like that, I don’t have a good answer.  Not sure there is a good answer – at least not a good one that can come from people.  God’s got a lot of explaining to do in my opinion. 

With Joseph and Artham fresh on my mind we talked about the Bible story – one she had never heard.  Sometimes story is the only thing to tell in the middle of hardship.  Sometimes explaining things away only makes everything worse.  Take Job’s friends for instance: they did everything right until they opened their mouth.  So it was story for us on the 6th floor, and I let Joseph’s tale just hang there.

Thank God for story.  And thank God for storytellers.  And thank God for the larger story we get to participate in.

What Could Have Been

There is a table in the coffee shop.  It’s low and it’s made out of chalkboard.  It’s where parents bring their kids.  Today a mom and her two daughters (3 and 5 probably).  Cute little rain jackets, pigtails, and dresses underneath that would certainly pass the “twirl” test.  Mom sets down the drinks and cookies.  Each little girl has her own drink and her own small plate with a big cookie.  Before mom has a chance to sit herself down I hear a “clink.”  5 year old has tipped over her drink.  It covers half the chalkboard and all of her cookie.

What could have been:

“There it went.  That’s ok sweetie.  Accidents happen.”  That’s the mom in a hushed, reassuring tone.  “We’ll see if they have any more cookies, and you can share your sister’s drink.  You’ll share with sister, right?  Good girl.”

What was:

“Now you’ve done it!  It’s all over the place!”  That’s mom in a loud belittling tone.  “I didn’t do it on purpose, momma.”  That’s 5 year old in an ashamed little voice.  “Well, of course you didn’t do it on purpose!”  Again, loud enough so that nobody missed the fact that daughter goofed it.  Mom storms off to the front of the shop.  Daughter shrinks into her seat.  From the front of the shop everyone hears, “My daughter just spilled an entire drink, and we’ll have to clean it up.”  Daughter shrinks even further.

And from there the cycle of parenting passes on, and surely the little girl will hear her mother’s voice for decades…even a lifetime.  Chances are good that her daughter and her daughter’s daughter will hear the same words, the same tone, the same powerplay.

I sat there with a friend, and we both looked at each other.  I wish my sister were there.  She would have said something.  She would have done something.  She would have put that “mom” in her place.  My sister is a paragon, a peerless example of justice.  The world in black and white – especially when a child is mistreated.  Dang, I wish she were there.

And now reflecting on the situation I ask myself what could have been if she were there.  I ask myself what could have been if only there had been someone in the room who knew that the little girl was being bullied.  If only there had been someone to stand up for the weak and powerless.

Categories: Kingdom of God Tags: ,

Preaching a God you do not like

May 10, 2011 1 comment

I suppose if I did the math (and I did do the math) a person who is my age has had 1,836 Sundays.  I was a camp counselor for 6 summers: that’s about 300 campfire times.  I’ve also had chapels at both college and seminary.  That’s 7 years of chapels making roughly 910 chapel services.  Then there are all the worship services after that which break down to probably 750 where I’ve preached or participated in leading worship.  A rough total of about 3,800 corporate worship services.  I’m not trying to brag.  I know my heart, and I could have used twice that for sure.  But I want to make a point with the number.

I have never once heard a preacher, including myself, say the thing I want to say this week.  “I don’t like the God I see in this passage.”

Why is that?  Well, it’s either because the person preaching does like the God they see in the passage, or they’re afraid of admitting what they feel, or it’s just taboo to be honest in that way from behind the pulpit, or church politics would usher them out the door afterwards, or they are stuck on the idea that a worshiper must be in a perpetual state of praise.  I understand all that.  I do.  But the fact of the matter is that this week I’m preaching on Genesis 22.

It’s where God asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac, the one he loves and sacrifice him on an altar.  What kind of a person does that?  What kind of a God does that?  This is the son God promised an old barren couple.  This is the son who is to be the beginning of a world-wide blessing.  This is Abraham’s flesh and blood.  What kind of misuse of power is this by God?  Why test someone like that?  I don’t like the God I see here.  I would not want to go out to lunch with this God.  This kind of God should not expect my love and gratitude and worship.

You might be thinking, “Yah, but God supplies a ram before Abraham can go through with it.”  So?  The boy was bound, laying on a pile of wood, and the knife was on its descent toward his lifeblood and it’s supposed to make it OK that God stopped him at that point?  Not for me.  I don’t like it, and in this story…I don’t like God.

I have to be able to say that.  I have to be able to say it in church on Sunday because of the kind of faith community we want to be.  We desire to be a place of authenticity – where you can be yourself and honestly engage scripture and the living God who breathed life into both the words and into us.

Pastors are given a big responsibility – be honest with God’s word and with God’s people.  And while I have great love and respect for Bill Wayland, my boyhood pastor, camp chaplains, college chaplains, seminary speakers, Perry DeGroot and others who have preached God’s word to me in the past, I’m hoping to break the cycle in a healthy way.  I don’t think any of them ever lied to me, but they protected me, and I’m not sure that’s a service to the hearer.

I’m no homeletics professor, but I know this: preachers are not only teaching God’s word, they also are teaching how to honestly engage God.  And in a church plant I’m surrounded by people who can sniff a half-truth better than most.  And if I ease past something like this, I’ve lost them…and I really shouldn’t be surprised if they never came back.  People are looking for a lot of things: comfort? yes. inspiration? yes. But they also look for truth – and not the “we can stand in the face of the world holding this truth to their noses” kind of truth.  Sometimes just a little “I don’t like the God I see in this passage” kind of truth goes a long way.  It’s permission, basically.  Permission to feel what they feel – or maybe just what I feel.

This story may not show a God I like, but it’s the God I have, and…the God I dearly love.  I think I may need to end there both today and on Sunday.

What Easter Morning Sounds Like

April 19, 2011 1 comment

Hi.  I’m Jim, the pastor here.  Glad you decided to join us for worship this morning.  If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or maybe even haven’t been to church at all before, let me introduce you to how things tend to work.  See that guy behind the other mic? That’s Soulinh.  He’s going to play some music and we’re going to sing.  The songs tend to be directed to God or about God or, sometimes, directed at the rest of the people in the room…encouraging them in a certain direction – upward, usually.

After we sing a few songs, we send the kids upstairs to continue worshiping in a way that’s a little more accessible for their young ages.  It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding that God loves them, but the way they need to hear it can be a little more appropriate upstairs.  When they head upstairs we’ll open the Bible and take a look at what God has to say to creation.

If you’ve never heard a sermon before, it can take all kinds of forms.  Sometimes the preacher will talk for a long time, or a short time.  Sometimes it’s even a conversation of sorts between you and the preacher, but the most important thing is that God gets to speak through the Word of God (that’s what we call the Bible here sometimes).  We believe that God speaks through the Bible and the preacher gives some insight into what God has to say to us, here, today.

Now, if you’re new to the Bible, let me give you a short overview: it’s a story, a love story about a God who created a world full of beauty and wonderful animals and the most complex of all: humans – who dwelled in a garden with God and each other.  We were created in God’s image for a relationship with God, to love God, to walk with God, to glorify God and to have a friendship with God.  Being human involves a relationship not only with God, but with other humans in peace and equality.  But things broke.  These relationships were ruptured and separated when people decided to break the trust and attempt to take God’s place, disobeying the only rule God layed out for creation.

Like any good story, especially a love story, there needs to be a problem – a break in the relationship that is overcome.  This is it.  The relationship is broken through the actions of humans, and there is nothing they can do to restore that relationship.  What’s worse, is that the brokenness isn’t just between creator and creation; the rupture goes deeper – into how humans interact with each other, and with the rest of creation.  But, like a good love story, a hero arises who will reunite the two separated parties.

God wants to bring things back into the peaceful wholeness (there’s a great word we use for that – Shalom) that we had in the Garden of Eden.  God wants to reconcile, wants to walk again, talk again with us – this time with the even deeper knowledge of love; the love that reconciles and moves forward.

So, back to the hero who arises.  Through time God raises up a people who represent all that God stands for.  They fail miserably to be God’s representatives in the world, but the Creator continues to bring them back and forgive them.  His plan is to raise up out of them a Messiah (a person who will bring them to salvation – or a restored relationship with Godself).  In time, God did just that – he sent a hero, a Messiah.  But not just any person – God came himself, put on flesh and dwelt among us to be the perfect reconciler.  It’s tricky and simple that he was born to a virgin named Mary – a simple and faithful woman.  The child was named Jesus.

Of course God showed what a human is supposed to look like, what they used to look like: full of love, and in an unbroken, unsevered relationship with God.  It’s something people haven’t seen in thousands of years, and they didn’t quite know what to do with this picture – a picture that showed their own frailties, foibles, and faults in such an nonjudgmental way.  So just when we, the readers of the story, start to get ready for the wonderful resolving of conflict, there is a plot twist.

Jesus is killed by those he came to reconcile with.  And the reader of the story is crushed.  And those who followed Jesus were crushed until the beauty of the whole story becomes clear.  All along God had planned on the death of Christ – reconciliation is not inexpensive after all.  And after three days of death, God overcame death with the power of love and life and brought Jesus back to life and with Him our relationship…all back to life.  At last, in the death of Jesus, the price is paid and a dying, broken relationship is finally put out of its misery.  And in the resurrection life is breathed into Jesus and at the same time breathed into the dead relationship.  Life.  Real and unhindered.  Renewed to the garden we walk and converse freely.

All this was free – the grace God showed free for the taking – a relationship renewed.  It’s when we recognize this that we are free to be truly human again.  And, inevitably, when we try again and again to sever our relationship, Christ’s death and resurrection covers it over and again so that we are reconciled again and again.  Life without end.  What a love story: pure love, broken relationships, a costly reunion, and a renewed passion and relationship more vibrant than before.

So, that’s what a sermon kind of sounds like.  After that we’ll respond.  Because, really, after a love story like that – one that involves us – who wouldn’t want to respond in some way.  Maybe a “thank you”.  And there are a lot of ways you can do that…primarily God wants us to respond with our lives – to give back our lonely self to God, but not just a little of us, the whole self.  That is, after all, what God gave for us.  Here at church we tend to pass a plate where you can respond monetarily, if you’re prepared for that.  If you’re not prepared to give a gift today, let this worship service be our gift to you.  We’ll sing a song, too…usually a praise to this reconciling God.

After this we go out into the world to be God’s representatives: the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  To help the continuing restoration of the relationship between humans and humans, God and humans, and humans with the rest of creation.  God sends us out into the world (like God did so long ago with Jesus’ lineage) to represent love and righteousness and mercy and justice.

58th District Court

April 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Sitting in the second row of courtroom B at the 58th District Court in Holland, MI gave me the ability to hear each conversation between judge and defendant.  I was able to listen in on the four sentencings before the one I had arrived to attend:

First up was a diminutive young woman who drove her car under the influence of alcohol.

Second was an enormous man in an orange jumpsuit and shackles.  He was there because he beat his girlfriend.

Third, an older Chilean man who allowed a young child to drive a car.

Fourth, a man in his very early twenties who now must register as a sex offender.

While they were young, old, male, female, small, and very large they all had one thing in common besides the fact that each stood before the judge.  Each had misused power.

The diminutive woman misused the horsepower of her car.  The enormous man misused his physical power over someone weaker.  The older Chilean man misused his power over a younger person, and the newest member of the national registry of sex offenders misused his power of age and experience.

Each was entrusted with this power, not necessarily from the State of Michigan, but they all found one thing to be true: there is a power greater than that of their own.  They stood before a judge who represented the seal of the State of Michigan that hung on the wall right behind him, and that power outmatches each individual.

Power flows downhill and is granted by those uphill.  At the end of the day, or at the end of days, we stand before the judge who has broken all seals and has disseminated power.  I pray for justice.  And mercy.

My Pitch To NBC

March 28, 2011 1 comment

I have a few shows I watch on TV (understatement).  Dana usually reads while I find out who’s voted out or find out who shot J.R.  But every once in a while Dana gets into a show, and I love it because it’s another shared activity we enjoy like brushing our teeth or not laughing out loud when Bis goes into a raging drama queen moment over something non-existent.  Happily, Dana picked up on a show called “America’s Next Great Restaurant”.

Ten people who have an idea for a new restaurant chain go through the preparation for starting a restaurant while four knowledgeable investors weed them out until there’s a winner who receives three of his/her restaurants in three prime cities in the U.S.  The investors give them chances to show off different parts of their plan: taste, look, name, menu, etc. in front of hundreds of regular people who vote on their favorite in a particular category.

Last night’s episode got me thinking about having a reality show of my own: “America’s Next Great Superchurch”.  Yuck!  Here’s how it would go: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Kirk Cameron gather a bunch of church planters in their preparatory stage.  They give them the chance to finalize and hone their plans: look, feel, name, liturgy (or lack thereof), theology (or lack thereof), proposed leadership structure, financial plan, pastoral staffing plan, pastoral vacation plan, pastoral family plan, church values, church mission statement, location, space plan (facilities).  Then they give unchurched, dechurched and churchy-type people the opportunity to cast their vote on these individual aspects of the church plant.  Rick, Bill, and Kirk wittle down the contestants until they get to the final one who receives as a reward…funding for thier new church plant.

Ugh!  I can see this actually happening in our media-rich church culture.  Yuck.  OK, let’s stay with this for a minute…  This could really work for some of these planters.  They could really get a lot of kinks worked out and the expert advice of some people who understand the business of church and the culture of church.  (I can hardly continue this, it’s killing me)  Ok, keeping going, Jim.

The winner receives money to go along with his/her well-planned design for a new church plant.  They are like a hiker who is all packed up and exercised, stretched out, has their pack, water, food, maps, matches, and Swiss Army knife.  There’s a problem, though – at least I have seen that it can be a problem.  It’s this:

You can plan and think and prepare, but there’s one thing you can’t plan, understand, or prepare for: The Holy Spirit.  The Spirit blows where He wants and how and when.  A hiker plans for certain types of weather and the wind brings something different.  The hiker prepares for a temperature range and the wind brings El Nino (whatever that is).  The hiker brings water purification, but the wind dries up the spring. 

Embody Christ Fellowship started with a beautiful plan, and we’re still using most of it, but we’re finding that there’s a need to trust and wait and pray and lean on the power of the Most High God to pave the way into hearts.  Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and Kirk Cameron know something, but the Holy Spirit is the One who knows the hearts, minds, needs, and desires of His creation, the ones he desires to bring back into reconciliation.  Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. 

Come Holy Spirit!

Disney Recap

March 8, 2011 2 comments

We had a WONDERFUL time at Disney.  The kids were super excited to go, and the second surprise was as good as the first: their good friends from Pella, IA were in the adjoining room to ours!  What a great week.  Four adults and four kids, reservations for 8 at some seriously dangerous Fat Tuesday kind of eating establisments, rides to turn your stomach, shows to stop your heart, friends to share the memories, and everyone in all the parks calling your daughter “princess” all week.  We loved it.

At one point the kids got grabbed to join along in one of the shows “The Lion King” (totally worth the trip, by the way).  Here’s a link to some footage of the song and dance.

Then, the kids went through some jedi training and took on Darth Vader one by one.  Madalyn was the smallest one out there and was the joyous butt of many jokes (the actors never made her feel stupid, though).  Alex was intent on defeating the evil Sith lord, and took it seriously.  It was a blast.

The best part of the whole trip was watching the kids get to do something they dreamed of, and enjoying the kinds of things we just don’t do on a regular basis (flying, riding rides, spending more money than we have to).  I know my mom did the best she could, and I’m forever grateful for that, but it was really a tremendous blessing to get to offer something to my family that I never even dreamed of as a kid.  I can start to imagine what God must feel like when he reveals to his children so much more than they ever asked or imagined.