Friday, December 02, 2005

The Arrival of Jesus

In his introduction to The Message, a popular translation of the New Testament, Eugene Peterson made the following observation.

The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe—seemingly too good to be true.

But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots—had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.

As we enter into the Christmas season, these words by Peterson are extremely relevant and worthy of sustained reflection. We must resist allowing the consumerist frenzy associated with this season to eclipse the astonishing events that Christmas represents for the Christian. It signals that God did “enter history in a personal way,” demonstrating that God truly is “on our side.” Yet is also reminds us that God’s continued presence means things have changed and that everything must be “re-centered, re-imagined and re-thought.”

During this Christmas season let’s take some time to intentionally reflect on what it means personally to us that God has entered, not only history, but our hearts. What needs to be re-centered or re-thought in our lives? Anything need to be re-imagined? God came to rule in the hearts of women and men—the very domain of His kingdom. May Christmas be a time when we acknowledge His lordship and re-centered our lives around Him. In so doing, we embrace the true gift of Christmas, and re-enter the beginning of a new era for our lives.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Community Thanksgiving Service

Last evening was the third time that CrossBridge has participated in an interdenominational Thanksgiving Service. Each time I experience this service, I'm reminded about how much Christians have in common. I'm grateful that God is opening my eyes to see His larger kingdom. I'm always prayerful that His Spirit will create unity in the body of Christ so that "the world might believe that God sent Jesus."

Thanks to Clark Skelton and Indian Springs Baptist Church for hosting this event. BTW, last year's Thanksgiving service was at the church where Bo Bice attended before his American Idol fame. He sang with the praise band, and gave a very moving testimony. I enjoyed talking with him after the service--he was a very genuine guy. I pray that, in his newly acquired fame, Jesus will continue to shine through him.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Back From the Pit: Dependent on Him

Well, I've experienced the Grand Canyon--or at least a small piece of it--once again. This year, my 10 year old daughter, Miranda, traveled with me to Arizona to plunge into the pit with her old dad. While she did not hike to the river with me, she did hike a total of 9 miles in one day--from the Bright Angel Trailhead to Indian Garden and back. My sister, Vicki, and I started out a little before 6:00 a.m. down the South Kaibab Trail. At the Colorado River, we took the River Trail over to the Bright Angel Trail and met up with Miranda, and my dad at Indian Garden. From there we made the 4 and 1/2 mile trek to the South Rim. This year we were out of the pit by 4:00 p.m.--nearly 3 and 1/2 hours earlier than last year.

Each year on this trip, God has shown up in a powerful way for me. And, typically, as with the prophet Isaiah, His self-disclosure has exposed serious shortcomings in my spiritual walk. As I've admitted before, I tend to be task oriented. I'm the kind of guy who, when I'm involved in a project, task, or goal, I become tremendously focused. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes a weakness, however, when the task, project or goal becomes more imporant than people. And, often through our connection to people does God demonstrate His connnection to us.

While on my hike, I was so focused on accomplishing the task before me, I nearly missed out on experiencing Jesus once again. It happened while I was on the River Trail. This relatively level trail follows the Colorado River for about 1 and 1/2 miles. It joins the Bright Angel Trail at one of the suspended, foot bridges that spans the river. As Vicki and I were making our way along the trail, I noticed several hikers crossing this bridge. Admittedly, my gate lengthened and my pace quickened: I wanted to get ahead of these "slow pokes" on the trail.

I successfully passed the bridge before the leader of this slow-moving pack made it to the trail. We exchanged pleasantries as I walked by then, much to my chagrin, he asked if I could take a picture of his group for him. The hesitancy in my voice as I agreed to do so must have exposed my real feelings--I really didn't want to be bothered. After all, I was on a mission to conquer this hike in record time. Sensing my reluctance to stop, the leader excused me: "That's o.k.; sorry to bother you. All of our group isn't here yet anyway." At the moment I assured him that I'd be happy to take a picture for him, the rest of his group joined them on the bridge. "We're all here," the leader said. "Are you sure you don't mind taking a few pictures?" "No problem," I said, and I told my sister to go on ahead and I'd catch up to her in a few minutes.

I figured that I could take a couple of shots, return his camera and be back on the trail in less than 2 minutes. That's when I saw them. Carefully perched on a large rock beside the trail was a covey cameras. Of course, none of them was the old shoot an click variety. They all were digital, each with unique features and focusing mechanisms. I tried to keep my composure. Admittedly, I thought about just walking off: afterall, I'd probably never even see this group again. But, I suppressed those feelings and dutifully clicked off picture after picture using one camera after another. Of course, I had to get specialized instructions from each camera's owner as I moved from one camera to the next.

I finally clicked the last picture laid it down on the rock and literally starting jogging down the trail to catch up to my sister. After about 15 minutes, I joined up with Vicki, just as we arrived at a stony beach area where we had planned to take a break and soak our tired feet in the chilly Colorado River. Ah, it was heavenly. My feet were tired and burning from the steep, long climb down. I almost could nearly see smoke rise from the ends of my legs as I plunged my feet into the swift, cold water.

After relaxing for several minutes, we walked back to the Bright Angel Trail to begin the long climb to the South Rim of the Canyon. Just as we hit the trail, there they were. The group whose pictures I had taken nearly 40 minutes earlier had stopped for a break. I greeted them once again and, with tongue obviously in cheek, asked the leader if he'd like for me to take a few more pictures. He laughed, thanked me again, and declined my offer.

That's when he noticed my t-shirt. It was one of my oldest son's old shirts that he had gotten at a youth rally several years earlier. On the front was a singular word framed by two gothic crosses: "Dependent." The guy pointed at my shirt and asked: "Dependent on whom?" I simply raised my walking stick, pointed to the sky and said, "God." Now, you meet all kinds of people at the Grand Canyon. Some are devoted naturalists there to investigate this fortuitious formation of nature. Others are avowed atheists, some are mystics, others are Christians. I really didn't know what to expect when I said those words.

His response was powerful. "Ah, dependent on the Lord Jesus Christ, maker of heaven and earth. God bless you brother!" "Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ, " I said in response. "And God bless you, too, my brother." Whew! God did it again. He brought to my attention by this good brother that I had begun the day with a shirt vowing my utter dependence on Him. In my haste to accomplish the task before me, I had forgotten that vital reality. It took a stranger, equally tied to the master, to remind me of my avowed dependence on God.

I think that's part of what community is about. We all have the propensity to live independent lives--even when we deny doing so. The community of faith is to be a constant reminder that only "in Him do we live and move and have our being." Perhaps we should dust off the old ancient greeting: "The Lord be with you," the officiate would say to the congregants who then would respond, "And with you also." Then, may we walk our individual journeys connected to one another and to the One Who actually is with us. And, may our steps be ordered only by Him.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Into the Pit...Again

Tomorrow is a big day. My youngest daughter, Miranda, and I will fly out of Birmingham to Phoenix, Arizona. There, we will meet my sister and her husband and drive to the Grand Canyon where my mom and dad await us. This is the third consecutive year that I've gone to the Grand Canyon for the grueling trek to the river and back in one day...and I can't wait to go!

I'm especially looking forward to spending some time with my daughter. She's never flown before, so she's excited, and a little nervous. This shared experience together will create many opportunities for great conversation in years to come. She's such a wonderful daughter!

The "pit," is a favorite psalmist metaphor for inward turmoil created by difficult circumstances. This was a place from which the psalmists would cry out to Yahweh for deliverance. I've been in that pit many times, and it's not a good place to be.

The pit into which I will descend with my daughter is one that I look foward to experiencing again. This descent is marked by geographical upheavals that demonstrate the power of God. For me, it's a deeply spiritual experience.

While the psalmist would cry "out of the pit" for deliverence, this amazing pit summons praise to Him from deep within my soul. I'm reminded of His power, mercy and grace everytime of experience this amazing place. I, therefore, look forward to descending into the pit again.

Thanks so much to CrossBridge for allowing me such time of intense spiritual renewal. I will miss this family of God this Sunday.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Woman; My Daughter

Last Sunday, September 25, is a day that I won't soon forget. It's missions month at CrossBridge: a time we take to inform our folks of our domestic and foreign mission points. We further invite other ministries in our area to share with us how God is touching folks through their work.

On this past Sunday, The King's Ranch and Hannah Homes ministry (with whom we partner) was highlighted. In usual superb fashion, LifeSong, under Greg Miles capable direction, did an amazing job leading worship. It was one of those days when I sensed the presence of God in a very special way. Barry Battles, founder of Coming Soon Productions, put together a very moving 7 minute video depicting the great impact that the King's Ranch and Hannah Home are having in ministering to women and children who are victims of abuse.

What touched me the most was a dramatic presentation--from a contemporary perspective--of the woman at the well. The young woman dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and worn sneakers. Her presentation of this story was absolutely astounding. I'd read and preached from this story many times. Sunday was the first time that I really heard it. The woman was a Samaritan, with a checkered past and equally questionable present. Despite these things, Jesus reaches out to her, and she becomes an evangelist for the Samaritan village. The way the actress presented her response to Jesus' compassion and grace moved me--and many others--to tears. When she ended her soliloquy by singing passionately the first verse of Amazing Grace. Whew!

This young lady demonstrated how powerfully God can use drama to touch hearts. I was completely impressed with her interpretation and presentation of this story. Oh, did I mention that the actress was my oldest daughter, Amber? Yeah. I'm a blessed Dad.

Amber is receiving a double major (theatre and mass communication) from the University of Montevallo. She has an amazing voice and is an accomplished on stage actress. I pray that through Christian women and men the arts will be redeemed and used to present the good news of Jesus to the emerging generation. Thanks to Amber for touching my heart all over again with the grace of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What Caused the Storms?

There's another storm brewing in Alabama. While this one is of the political/theological variety, it does have to do with the hurricanes that recently ravaged the Gulf Coast. Senator Hank Erwin (R-Montevallo) publicly has stated, and written, that these storms were God's punishment for the rampant sin--especially gambling--associated with Mississippi and New Orleans. Prior to his election as state Senator, Hank Erwin was host of a local Christian talk show. Erwin was known for his strong, conservative, evangelical stand regarding a host of moral, and doctrinal issues.

Of course, Erwin's comments have been not so well received, by Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians, appalled by his comments, sadly, have belittled his intellect, and even questioned his interpretive integrity. A number of things have struck me while observing this controversy. First, Christians who take issue with Erwin must do so in an appropriate manner. We should not transgress Christian ethics when disagreeing with another brother.

Second, I, too, take issue with the dogmatic manner in which Erwin confidently ascribes the hurricanes as God's judgment on specific sin. At the same time, the concept of God's judgment in the space-time continuum is not outside the boundaries of biblical theology. There are instances in scriptrue--especially the prophets--where God punishes His people for the injustices in the nation. Amos, in particular, excoriates the people for oppressing the poor and threatens the impending judgment of God. He even mentions how God had held rain from one city, causing people to migrate to another, only to find insufficient water to quench their thirst (4:6-8). The concept of God's punishment through "natural" means is, therefore, not inconsistent with biblical revelation.

Third, the question of theodicy is a complex question to which the Bible gives equally complex answers. In other words, the Bible does not present only one answer to the question of suffering in its various forms. It offers a number of possibilities. Sometimes, as indicated above, God does punish His people. At other times, Satan brings about natural calamaties (Job). Still again, their are times when there is no apparent reason for one's suffering (John 9). It is irresponsible to dogmatically assert only one of these possible reasons for natural disasters when, obviously, there are other possibilities.

Finally, regardless of the etiology of the natural disaster, the body of Christ is to respond with the love of God. If the hurricanes had something to do with God's punishment, it wasn't just for the Gulf Coast residents, nor for a particular sin. It should serve as a wakeup call for our entire nation, and especially the church. While Hank Erwin mentions specifically gambling, perhaps the real sin has to do with oppressing the poor--something God despises. Has the church become numb to the plight of the oppressed in our society? Are we really concerned with the "least of these?" If God has passed judgment, perhaps we should look at these more insidious expressions of sin. In the end, though, it is not up to us to determine why. Jesus' disciples once wondered aloud why a man was born blind. They assumed that either he or his parents sinned to cause his congenital blindness. Jesus rejected sin as the source of such suffering. He simply said: "this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (John 9:3). Whatever the reason for the storms, may all those displaced by the storms experience the work of God in their lives. And, may the body of Christ be the conduit of His powerful grace.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Dirty Grays of Compassion

I ran accross this most descriptive phrase while reading an article giving a fresh--and provocative--look at the abortion issue from a evangelical Christian perspective. In a nutshell, the article articulated a prophetic vision for this admitted societal blight. For years, it seems that pro-life ministries have focused on the unborn child, marshalling compelling arguments that the fetus actually is human life. And, I personally think this conclusion is incontrovertible.

This article, on the other hand, focuses on the mother. It asks the compelling question: "What have we really accomplished when we've condemned abortion by demonstrating the humanity of an unborn child?" The article makes the point that while the fetus' humanity is now beyond medial dispute, attitudes really haven't changed.

As I reflected on this conversation, which really is representative of all brokenness in our world, several things came to mind. First, the church need not back away from the startling reality of sin. At it's heart, sin is a self-oriented approach to life that separates us from experiencing the dynamic life of God. This fallen reality needs to be exposed in whatever form it takes. Second, simply exposing sin does not necessarily lead to change. The article said that 1 in 6 abortions are by Christians. Most women, even those who have abortions, don't think it's a good thing. Sounds exactly like Paul's struggle with the reality of sin at work in his own body (Romans 7). Finally, the answer to the abortion question--and other equally complicated ones--is not simple. In the end, however, the body of Christ is to respond to sin in all it's presentations as Jesus did: enter into the dirty grays of compassion. He did this when he "ate with and received sinners" (Luke 15:1-2). He did this when he said to the woman taken in adultery: "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" (John 8). As we are known to put it: we really are to love the sinner and hate the sin.

BTW, have you ever wondered how to do this? As C.S. Lewis taught, there is one person with whom each of us enters into this dirty gray of compassion every day--the person in the mirror.

Monday, September 19, 2005

In His Presence: It's Reward Enough

What will heaven be like? There likely are as many answers to that question as their are inquirers. Biblical writers used imagery familiar to their day to capture the essence of the eschaton. City with no gates. Transparent gold streets. No tears. No death.

One's station in life tends to influence one's perspective of heaven. Many hymns that extol the opulence of heaven emerge, understandably, from the depression era. I can understand a depression era migrant worker thinking of "mansion awaiting for the end of life's troublesome way." I'm not so sure, however, that the blessing of heaven has to do with any material reward.

I learned what I think heaven really is about just this week. My mom and dad came for a visit this past week. They came primarily to see Zach, our 14 year old son, march in the Spain Park High School Band. Like his other siblings, he's a very gifted musician. Following in the rhythmic steps of his ole dad, he's a drummer--and quite a good one. Along with this, he, unlike his dad, is also a gifted vocalist, but I digress.

While my parents were here, my dad and I had a chance to go fishing together for a few hours on Thursday evening. While I was growing up, my dad and I fished together quite a bit. It was a special treat for me to engage in this shared experience with my dad again and, we had a blast.

Interestingly, we didn't catch very many fish. I caught two, embarrassingly small bass and my dad caught none. As we were packing up to leave, I express to my dad how bad I felt that he didn't catch a fish. Now, my dad isn't very expressive. When he speaks, however, it's from the heart.

In his matter of fact, but very tender way, he said: "Catching fish isn't what makes this fun, just being with each other makes the trip worth it." He couldn't have said it any better. That's when I realized an important truth. While we're trying to figure out all the trappings of heaven, I believe, once we're there, that we'll understand it's true blessing: just being with each other in the Father's presence will be reward enough.

"What is my hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy (1 Thess. 2:19).

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Send Your Rain, O Lord...Just Not When I'm Painting

The temperature in the Southeast over the last few weeks has been stifling hot. While the actual temperature has been in the 90's, the heat index pushed the virtual mercury well over 100. Leaving the mechanically cooled air of inside facilities, it has felt as if you've strolled into a convection oven.

Many have been the days when I've prayed for a cloud to provide a brief shower, or at least to give some shelter from the sun's direct rays. Yesterday was an exception to this daily desire.

Our house is in desperate need of a coat of paint (probably two coats). This became very apparent several weeks ago when we noticed a rotting window sill on one of the front, dormer windows. Each time I drove in the driveway, the exposed, black wood framed by pealing paint seemed to beg for my attention. With great resolve, I simply looked the other way.

Yesterday, I finally took some action. I purchased a replacement sill from Lowe's (these home improvement stores have everything!), cut it to size, removed the rotted sill, and installed the new one. Just as I was carefully applying the second coat of paint, a dark cloud moved in. I began to pray, "Please, Lord, don't let it rain." Now, I don't know if my prayer was ineffective or if someone else's was effective, but the cloud opened up and dropped it's liquid treasure on the parched earth.

I learned a few things yesterday. First, if you need rain, just start painting the exterior of your house! Second, and more seriously, I tend to view the world through the narrow lenses of my own, immediate needs. What I'm doing at the moment, ought to be as important to everyone else--especially God--as it is to me. Surely God could hold back the rain until I finished painting these newly installed window sills. After all, this task was as urgent a world hunger! Third, I'm grateful that my greatest worry yesterday was a rotting window sill. For, it implied that I had a window, which was attached to a house. On that same day, I saw a homeless man with a shopping cart loaded with his worldly possessions huddled under an overpass, trying to get some relief from the hot sun. I wonder if he welcomed the rain that I had so cursed? Perhaps the rain that streaked my newly painted window sill was intended to bless one of the "least of these" brothers of Jesus?

Send your rain, O Lord, to your people!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

WWJD: Beyond the Bracelet

For centuries, Christians have excelled in iconography as a means to remind them of their core beliefs, express their faith, and motivate them to a faithful walk with God. Crosses. Fish. IHS. Various symbols and monograms have been used in association with the Christian faith. These icons have both positive and negative potential. On the positive side, they can accomplish the purposes described previously. On the negative side, they can become mere pieces of jewelry or art with little or no practical meaning (ever seen someone with a fish on the car's trunk flip somebody off?). They can become things we admire, rather than reminders of the One Who we worship. Also, they can be used as near talismans as attempts to manipulate the divine for our own prosperity or protection.

I remember a few years ago when the various colored WWJD bracelets were the fad. And, I actually liked them. I went through several of these, never taking them off until they literally deteriorated (or became so dirty I had to remove them). That says a lot for a guy who still can't bring himself to wear a watch--I just can't stand something on my wrist! As you recall, this bracelet was to remind its wearer to ask the all important question before taking any action: "What Would Jesus Do?" Admittedly, I often failed to ask myself the question despite the reminder that donned my wrist like an ancient phylactery.

Recently, I re-read the book that gave rise to the WWJD bracelet craze. Bearing the title: What Would Jesus Do?, Garrett Sheldon retells in contemproary language the phenomenal book, In His Steps, written by his great-grandfather, Charles Sheldon. While the book is fictional, it's informed by actual events in the lives of believers. As I read through this book once again, I was deeply convicted.

Though written over a decade ago, the message rings with relevance. It begins with a description of a busy pastor, leading a very large, successful church. Quite frankly, it describes to a "t" any number of American churches in suburbia. The pastor enjoyed a comfortable existence, in an afluent church that boasted large attendance numbers and, more importantly, huge contribution figures. Everything is "well" at First Church...until. Until a needy, pregnant, black woman interrupts the well-managed lifestyles of the pastor and the church members. At first, the church simply sends her away, not knowing what to do. The desperate lady attends church the following Sunday, pleading for assistance when she begins hemorhaging and faints before the church. Subsequently, she dies, leaving a small little girl behind.

This tragedy begins a spiritual odyssey for both the pastor and the church. He challenged the church to take a year-long pledge that, before anyone would make a decision, they would ask the question: What would Jesus do? What I like about this book is two-fold. First, it moves Chrisitanity from the realm of theory to praxis. It focuses, not on doctrinal nuances, but on actual service in the name of Jesus--something the church in America is in desperate need of. It challenges the insidiuous hubris that so grips our churches, and calls for self-denial and humility.

Second, the book is not a thinly-veiled strategy for prosperity in Jesus name. In fact, the folk who dared to make decisions based upon the life of Jesus met with severe opposition. Job losses. Economic reversals. Personal opposition and criticism. Why, there was even a movement within the church to fire the preacher over his new, fanatical views. Following in the steps of Jesus, remember, ultimately leads to the cross.

I think every church in suburbia ought to re-read--or read for the first time--this compelling book. In fact, I'm working on a strategy to get this book into the hands of every family at CrossBridge. We need to be reminded of our true mission. We need to be reminded that God's heart is with the poor, the disenfranchized, the outcast. Too often we've shielded ourselves from the mess of the world and in so doing have failed to work with God toward it's redemption. In the end, the book moved me to repentance. Perhaps it will do the same for you as well.

WWJD. It's more than just a bracelet...or is it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

5 People in a Tent for 4

Tomorrow, our kids return to school. It always feels as if summer flies by. This year, it seemed to break the sound barrier. This was one of those summers whose frenetic schedule prohibited a vacation for the Brantley family. And, I'm really not complaining. Trying to find time for a trip is a problem that most people in the world never face. So, we're blessed beyond measure.

At the same time, we look back with regret when we've not been able to spend focused, extended time with our kids. Facing this reality, Carol and I did something we've never done before. This past Sunday evening, we loaded up our small tent, fishing gear, a few groceries, and what little camping equipment we have (basically a flash light and sleeping bags), and took off for an overnight camping excursion. My oldest son, Allen (who's home from Oklahoma Christian for a few days), our youngest daughter, Miranda and I left first to set up camp. Carol remained behind until our youngest son, Zach returned home from an overnight trip to a friend's lake house. By 7:30 p.m., they joined us at our camp site.

We pitched our small tent on the banks of a beautiful, 3 acre lake owned by Steve Wilson, a great friend and brother. This lake is teeming with large mouth bass. We fished late into the evening, built a fire, and ate our fill of beanie weanies (this may be a uniquely southern dish).

Around midnight, we ambled in the darkness to our tent for a night's rest--at least that's what we thought. Now, please understand. Carol purchased this tent for $40.00 at Academy Sports a few months ago. The occasion was a father/daughter campout at this very sight. This tent claims to sleep four--but they must have meant four small infants! Somehow we managed to sandwich all five of us into this little tent.

I learned a few things that evening. First, it's nearly impossible to sleep when you're cheek to cheek with the people you love. Second, there's no greater feeling in the world than to be cheek to cheek with the people you love. Third, there's no place I'd rather be than cheek to cheek with the people I love.

In the stillness of the night, and the squirms of 5 uncomfortable people trying to sleep, God speaks powerfully. He reminds us of what's important. He reminds us of who's important. The enemy delights in distracting us from the important, attempting to nudge us toward the urgent. Sometimes, it takes 5 people jammed in a tent for 4 for God to get our attention. Thank you, dear Lord, for speaking to me in this extraordinary way through rather ordinary means. Grant us all eyes to see, and ears to hear you in unexpected ways.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Wilderness: A Place of Refocusing

I haven’t posted a blog in quite some time. While I could blame this blogging lacuna on mere lack of creativity, I know there was a deeper reason for it. I simply haven’t had the spiritual energy to produce much worth reading—as if I ever have!

The past several months have been particularly difficult on me. The death of my beloved father-in-law in March, along with a number of staffing issues over the past several months have left we bewildered, wondering about my own ministerial focus. For several months, I’ve been in the wilderness and have felt the hot breath of the lion that constantly prowls around seeking whom he may destroy. Some of you know what I mean.

These have been painful, confusing, and frustrating days. In this process, however, I’ve discovered several things. First, time in the wilderness, while frightening and frustrating, is an essential part of our spiritual formation. Strangely, immediately after God issued His divine pronouncement of approval at Jesus baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I am not attempting to equate my, or anyone’s, ministry with Jesus’ mission. At the same time, this story says something about the essential tutorial nature of wilderness moments. These lonely times force us to face the reality of our human weakness, and to clarify our ultimate allegiance. Will we follow our own pursuits or will we seek God’s will above our own?

Second, I’ve learned how easy it is to allow peripheral issues to distract us from kingdom business. Satan has the uncanny ability to use our concept of church to his own, devastating advantage. The American church seems to struggle with a collective hubris fueled by our consumerist culture. When we infect church with our consumerist mentality, the body of Christ is reduced to a Christian corporation whose purpose is to serve its patrons. Rather than increasing the kingdom of God, this mentality causes us to focus on keeping the Christian customers pleased so they will continue to patronize us. Satan has a hay day with this. Ministers who desire to preach the good news, and see souls save become disenchanted as they are forced to become managers of our Christian malls.

Finally, I’ve also learned that most Christians are equally dissatisfied with the status quo. Over the past few weeks, God has demonstrated that the people at CrossBridge are searching for ways to serve others in substantive ways. Rather than bemoaning the state of the church, God is calling bold leaders to invite others to travel in the way of the cross. I am grateful that God has, and is bringing, new focus, not only to me personally, but to the CrossBridge church collectively. I await with great anticipation the new thing God is birthing among us…and to see it come to maturity.

I’m so blessed to be in this community of faith whose heart stands poised in the direction of the fatherless, widows, and strangers in our world.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Embracing the Storm

I haven't posted a blog in a couple of months. This personal blogging lacuna was the result of a number of things. Strangley, though a minister's occupation evolves largely around words, sometimes its difficult to put two of them together to make a sensible thought. For some, difficult circumstances provide verbal fodder for some. For others, it tends to shut down the creative juices. I'm the latter of the two, I suppose. It's been pretty difficult around here the last few weeks. At the same time, it's been refreshing.

Storms seem to be that way. They are ominous with real, potential destructive power. Here in the Southeast, thunderstorms often erupt this time of year, producing flash floods, felling trees, leaving thousands without power. Despite these negative results, storms bring much-needed moisture to parched ground, and remind our arrogant minds of our ultimate vulnerability to powers much greater than ourselves. Without storms, life could not exist and, quite frankly, would be rather dull.

I've learned that as God begins His move in communities disruption, not peace, typically occurs at first. Let's face it. Humans generall resist change. Even the slavery of Egypt looks compelling against the risky business of following God. When God moves in a community, it can be painful. Changes do occur. Irritations arise. Ultimately, however, those who trust in the Lord mount up with wings like eagles, they run without becoming weary, and they walk without fatigue.

Perhaps you are in such a place. And, your storm is unique to you. While I don't think God is the immediate cause of everything in our lives, He is the final redeemer of it all. As Joseph, who in retrospect could see the hand of God in the extreme circumstances of his life, I look with great anticipation to understanding the mysterious, poweful, redemptive work of God beyond the storms. Give us eyes to see your sufficient grace, O Lord...and be glorified.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Be Exalted, O, Lord

If I were to be categorized religiously, I supposed I'd find myself within the broad boundaries of evangelical Christianity. Of course, within that category are many, and varied, subcategories. From this Protestant perspective then, I suppose what I'm about to say might sound strange. I've found myself drawn repeatedly to the media's coverage of Pope John Paul II's death and upcoming funeral.

Admittedly, I am intrigued by Catholicism's traditions and religious mysteries. Who is the secretly named cardinal that was held "in pectore" (in the heart) by the Pope? If there really is such a person, will the documents left by the John Paul II reveal his name? What political winds blow through the college of cardinals as they elect a new pope? And, what's the actual signicance of the white puffs of smoke sent up, signaling the election of the Church's new leader?

While there are serious theological differences between Catholics and Protestants (and serious differences between Christians in these broad categories), the death of this pope has created something glorious--the name of Jesus Christ will be heard throughout the world over the next few days. It might be said in the stoic tone of a detached reporter, or spoken with deep fervor from believers. Either way, the name of Jesus will be heard. For that, I am grateful.

May Your name, O Lord, be exalted. And, may you draw all people to Your Son through whom there is forgiveness and grace.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Are You Weeping?

I read an article by Steve Fry, pastor of the Belmont Church in Nashville, that spoke deeply to my heart during this special Christian season. The power of the thought emerged from the current circumstances of my life. I continue to grieve the death of my dear father-in-law. Moments of an overwhelming sense of loss continue to surprise me at unexpected moments. Normal sights and sounds remind me of his presence, and I'm struck by his absence.

When I received the article via email, it was surreal. It was as if the article was written specifically for me. After I contemplated this thought, I began to wonder how many people felt the same way. Isn't that the power of the gospel, though? One message, one savior, one God meeting each person uniquely?

Steve's article referred to Jesus' first, post-resurrection words uttered in the gospel of John. The words, strangley, took on the form, not of a command, but a question. And, the question centered not on Him, but on her--Mary Magdelene. "Why are you weeping?" Rather than a veiled criticism of an "highly emotional woman," these words speak to the priority of Jesus' heart--her hurt became His. He entered fully into the place of her pain.

Strangely, she thought Jesus was the cemetery gardener. A gardener? I've often wondered if Mary's sense of mistaken identity derived from the confusion of her grief aided by the shadows of early morning. Or, did Jesus' "ordinary" form contribute to the mistake? Wouldn't you expect the risen Lord to appear in such a glorious form that there would be no mistake of his identity? Certainly those closest to him (as was Mary) wouldn't mistake him for an ordinary gardener!

Perhaps that's part of the power of the resurrection, though. Jesus still comes, not in an unapproachable posture, but one that continues to identify with "ordinary" humans. For, rather than revealing Himself to the privileged, powerful, and politically connected, Jesus comes to a woman with a past. And, in so doing, He demonstrates to her--and us--not only the power of his resurrection, but the priority of His heart--I will meet you in your and always. "Why are you weeping?"

"Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."


Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Back to "Normal"

As I indicated in my previous post, my father-in-law died last Friday. His funeral and interment were on Monday--a sad day framed in hope. I was so proud of my children and dear wife on that day. Allen spoke powerful, though tender, words about his grandfather. Amber and Zach both read with eloquence some of their Poppa's favorite Scriptures. All three of these older children of ours sang with LifeSong during the service, as did Carol, my wife, and only child of her daddy.

I watched with amazement as Carol praised God in His sancturary under such sad circumstances. Her sanctuary wasn't the place we call the auditorium. It was a quite place of inner strength where she met her God and delivered her father's soul to His loving care. With every ounce of her being, she sang songs that were dear to her father. It appeared that with each lyric, phrase, and musical note, she gained strength in the presence of her Father. What a testimony!

Miranda, our sweet 10 year old met the day with her tender faith. She had spent many hours in the lap of her Poppa, and she misses his "jiggly laugh." I was touched by the way she held her siblings, and gained strength from their aggregate faith. My mother-in-law, Rose Allen, demonstrated great strength. Not the stoic, false strength of the world, but a godly strength that allowed her to weep unashamedly as she bid her husband of nearly 50 years "so long," anxiously awaiting when she would "see him again." Faith. Hope. Love.

It is now Wednesday, two days after the funeral. Strangely, I'm having a tougher day today than I did on Monday. I suppose I was so focused on the event, and how my family would hold up that I really didn't grieve. I am now. It seems that everything should be "back to normal." And, it's not. As I walked into my office and saw my desk strewn with hand made sympathy cards from the kids at our church along with several notes from dear friends, I wept. I realized the depth of my loss. "Poopah" was not only my father-in-law, colleague in ministry, brother in Christ, father of my wife and grandfather to my children, he was my friend. No, he was more than a friend. He was my buddy. I delighted in our time together.

I more deeply long for the kingdom of God to come in its fullness. I more fully understand the sting of death. And, I more completely desire the resurrection when Christ will unfurl his nail pierced hands, cup our cheeks and wipe the tears away. Until then, we walk by faith, not by sight.


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Present With The Lord

The last few days have been some of the most difficult ones of my life. I've watched my beloved father-in-law, whom I affectionately called, Poopa, slip into the arms of God. During this process, I hurt for my dear wife, Carol. An only child, her daddy loved her deeply, and she love him with equal devotion.

I witnessed her struggle of faith--she didn't want her daddy to die, but neither did she want to deny him the joy of being present with the Lord. In these moments, faith doesn't tidy up the struggle. The pain is real. Faith does provide a perspective that transcends the immediate and sees divine realities. Carol's faith moved her to embrace the promise of God for herself and her dad. I am completely amazed at this woman of God, and am grateful to share in her life.

Tomorrow will be another difficult day. She will sing with LifeSong (along with Amber, Allen and Zach) at her father's funeral. Allen, who is named after Poopa, will share some thoughts. Amber and Allen will read some of their grandfather's favorite texts and I, only with the strength that God provides, will deliver the eulogy. In all that we attempt, we desire to glorify our God--the one in whom Poopa lived...and died. Though absent from us in the body, we are delighted that he is present with the Lord.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Waiting Room Theodicy

As Greg Miles has posted on the LifeSong Notes blog site, my father-in-law, Howard Allen has been in the hospital for three weeks. This past week, he was in ICU due to complications from a procedure that nearly took him from this life.

While in the waiting rooms of these critical areas, you see and hear a lot of things. I overheard one particular conversation in which two men were discussing their loved one's medical condition. After discussing her serious, medical status, their conversation turned to theology.

"My preacher told me that God was in control of everything and that for some reason beyond our comprehension, He's put her in this shape. I just don't know about that," the son of the woman said with eyes heavy with tears. "No, I don't agree with that," her brother interjected. He began to provide his particular understanding of theodicy--explaining suffering in light of the existence of God. Eventually I joined the conversation and enjoyed my discussion with these men of obvious faith, and deep hurt.

I really don't remember all the theological points that were argued, because they ultimately didn't matter that much. I remember making some reference to C.S. Lewis' work after cancer caused the untimely death of Joy, his wife. Prior to that emotional experience, Lewis gave rational answers to the question of suffering. And, they were biblically centered and continue to be helpful. However, Lewis expressed his own emotional dissatisfaction with his own answers while he was in the throes of grief.

What I do remember is seeing a 53 year old, distinquished gentlemen (the woman's brother) break down and unashamedly weep. At that moment, something happened. It was as if his grief and mine connected us at a deep level. Not even knowing the man's name, I walked over and embraced him. "I'm so sorry about your sister," I whispered in his ear. "I don't understand all the complexities of our world; why this is happening at this moment to your sister. This I do know--God is not unaffected by your grief. He weeps with you." "I never thought of God weeping with me," he said. "Strangely, that thought helps."

In the end, theological systems and biblical concepts are insufficient for the hurting soul. And, thank God that's not what He offers. The biblical text, rather than a sterile list of do's and don't's from a cosmic despot, is His self-disclosure to a creation He desperately loves. He enters our struggles. He both touches and is touched by us. He has become vulnerable to our rejection of Him. The world is not as God intends. At least not yet. As Paul describes in Romans 8, the entire creation is groaning, awaiting ultimate redemption--the ultimate moment when God's redemptive work is consummated. At that moment, God will cup our cheeks in His holy hands and wipe the tears away. Until then, God uses His body to embrace the hurting, and mingles His tears with theirs. Somehow in those holy moments, healing begins. Such is the nature of waiting room theodicy.

Thanks to my CrossBridge brothers and sisters who have cried with us over the past few weeks. Your tears have brought healing to our hurting hearts. They remind us that God is fully present in the midst of such struggles.