Monday, September 28, 2009
Why me? What did I do to deserve this?
Usually, these are words that we hear in the context of suffering and hardship. Often when something bad happens, one of the first things we ask is how a good and all powerful God could let something like this happen.
I don't want to dismiss the problem of evil. I think it is a worthwhile endeavor to seriously ask why a good and all-powerful creator would allow evil to exist in his creation. But I do wonder why we never ask those questions when things are going well. Why is it that we never say "Why me?" in reference to all the good things in our lives.
I have had the good fortune of being born to parents who cared for me very much and who saw that I had every advantage they could provide. I've had the luxury of spending seven years of my life in a classroom where it was my privilege to spend my days pondering the mysteries of God and how I can live in that mystery and help others to find their place in it as well. I have a wife who is selfless and loving in a way that challenges me; a person with whom covenant faithfulness is as easy as it ever can be in this life; a person with whom it is the very definition of blessedness to share life. I have a daughter who constantly surprises me with her ability to find new ways to make me adore her more than I ever could have imagined. We expect that Hannah will have a little brother any day now as well. We all live in a spacious and comfortable home and have no idea what it is like to even think about missing a meal except by choice. I pastor a church of caring and compassionate people who are dedicated to Christ and are seeking to be obedient to him. Why me? Why should I enjoy all of these things? Or any of them? What could I have done or ever do to possibly deserve all of this?
I know there is a lot of legitimate pain and suffering in our world. I'm not trying to paint a rose-colored picture that ignores the dark places of our lives. But why is it that we consider good things the norm? Why do we regard them as things to which we are innately entitled but then lay all of the problems at God's feet or assume that they prove that God can not exist? Why should there be good rather than evil? Why should there be something rather than nothing?
These questions have been on my mind for some time now but they are brought to the forefront as I come to the book of Job this week. Job is caught in this strange cosmic test where God allows the Satan (in the Hebrew of Job, the definite article is affixed to its name) to take away every blessing Job has and to curse him with severe illness to see if he will remain faithful to God. Job proves remarkably true to the test saying that he must accept evil from the Lord as well as good. Later in this book he even makes this unbelievable confession of faith in God even in the midst of all his suffering where he says "Though he slay me, I will hope in him." (13:15)
I imagine that if some mysterious being of temptation called the Satan still has conversations with God like the one in the book of Job, then he must say to God "Of course, Dave Young reverences you. You've given him everything! But take away all that you have given him and then let's see what kind of faith he has!" When I think about my life in comparison to Job's, it seems laughable for me to even talk about trust or faith in God. But it is my hope that God's Spirit is working to form Job's kind of faith in me
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I made this video for this Sunday in case the baby was born late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. No baby yet so it wasn't used. This is my first time doing something like this for a sermon so it's certainly no work of art but I thought since I took the time to make it I might as well post it here.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Our sermon text for this week is James 5:13-20 in which James encourages the church to be a community where healing of all kinds takes place. James urges the church to pray and anoint one another for physical healing while also seeking healing through confessing sins to one another and holding each other accountable. As a result, this Sunday we will have a time of healing and communion in which we will anoint and pray over those who are seeking healing and then join together at the Lord's table.
Sadly, just this morning I read this article which reminded me of how badly passages like this one have been abused. This kind of stuff irritates me and even produces some hesitancy in me to engage in any kind of healing practice at all simply because I don't want my faith to be associated with this kind of misguided thinking.
Nevertheless, it is pretty clear in scripture that God heals. God especially did so in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, perhaps the first and most important thing we should recognize about the healings that Jesus performed is that they were a part of his kingdom proclamation. Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was near and that as a result Israel's exile was over; Israel's wounds as a nation would be healed. Jesus' healings were a kind of prophetic and symbolic act to match his words about the kingdom. Healing in the ministry of Jesus functioned as a sign that God was really bringing the kind of renewal that Jesus proclaimed. While different authors in the New Testament may not agree on precisely how, they do seem to agree that healing would be a part of the Church's continuing kingdom proclamation. The Gospels and Acts attribute many acts of healing to the apostles. Paul regards healing as a spiritual gift of some within his congregations. James puts healing in the hands of the elders of the local congregation.
Of course, if God healed through Jesus and continues to heal through the Church, then one of the first questions that is often asked is why God doesn't heal everyone who is sick or hurting. If God can heal one person, why does he let another die? Often questions like this are born out of deep personal pain and grief. Why didn't God heal my loved one? I think it is precisely when we try to give a blanket answer to every individual instance of suffering that we stray from the witness of scripture. There are instances of people being healed by Jesus because of their faith (like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years in Mark 5) but there are also instances of people being healed because someone else interceded with faithfulness on their behalf while the person themselves made no confession of faith to be healed (Jairus for his daughter in Mark 5, the friends of the paralytic in Mark 2). There are instances of people suffering because of sin but there is also Job who suffers in spite of his righteousness and even Jesus who suffers, at least in part, because of his righteousness. There are those like Joseph whose suffering at the hands of his brothers is used by God for a greater good but there are also the prophets who cry out on behalf of those who suffer meaninglessly at the hands of those who oppress them. The reality is that when the Bible talks about suffering and healing the issues of sin, faith, and God's will all come into play but not always in the same way. When we try to fit these things into some neat formula where we say that sin = sickness or faith = healing or that God has some great plan that required our particular instance of pain, we give very poor witness to the God who is working to heal all of us.
After all, if there is a singular answer to our suffering within the New Testament, that is it; that God is working to heal all of us from creation's sin sickness. This isn't just some theological cop out that values the spiritual over and apart from the physical. The reality is that if God healed everyone then we would all go on perpetually existing in this sin-soaked reality of death and decay. The promise of the gospel is the promise of resurrection and new creation. The individual instances of healing within our world, however we wish to categorize them: miraculous or medical; physical, spiritual, or relational; they are all forerunners and anticipations of what God will one day do with all of creation.
Until that day, the Church must be a community which witnesses faithfully to God's healing power. This means that we will continue to trust that God can and does heal in all kinds of ways in our world today (including by means of modern sciences) and we will not resort to simplistic answers when God does not intervene in a way that we would consider miraculous. It means that we will be a people of healing through love, service to others, prayer, accountability, and intentional reconciliation. But perhaps above all, it means we will be a people who live with the radical trust of Jesus that can pray "not my will but thine" even as we face our own death; a faith that God's grace can be seen most powerfully in our weakness, a hope that God's ultimate healing is yet to come.
Monday, September 14, 2009
I've been enjoying preaching from the Epistle of James over the last few weeks. I've really come to appreciate James' simple but profound wisdom. Much of his writing resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament such as the book of Proverbs. Its a kind of wisdom that is not especially difficult to understand and yet it captures so much truth about life that if we could just manage to live it out then the world (and the Church, for that matter) would be a much better place. Some of James' wise aphorisms that we've looked at so far include (in my own words):
"Our anger doesn't acheive God's righteousness."
"A faith that doesn't include works, especially works on behalf of the poor, isn't faith."
"We can't be wreckless with our words because they have enormous power."
On the other hand, I have to admit that I find James a bit difficult to preach from precisely because of this simplicity. James often seems to be so straight-forward and to the point that it doesn't seem like there is much on which to elaborate. So as I begin to work on my sermon from James 3:13-4:3 for this coming Sunday it's tempting for my sermon to look something like this:
"James says that if we are living by God's wisdom then we won't allow selfish ambition to lead to quarrelling among us. Amen. Have a good week everyone and enjoy getting home early to watch football."
Of course, I don't think we come to church each week just to hear something new. After all, what can be said that hasn't already been said? We come each week expecting to hear those same old words we've heard many times before believing that they can still breath new life into us. James' own letter is a perfect example of that. He doesn't say much that wasn't already stated in the Old Testament or in one Rabbi or another's comments on that Scripture. In fact, some commentators accuse him of not saying anything that is distinctly Christian in his letter. Nevertheless, James carries out the task of a preacher; he elucidates the words of Scripture for the life of his congregation so that those words might come alive in them and that they might become more Christ-like in their life together.
So, while James's wisdom maybe be relatively plain and simple, it is still wisdom nonethless. It is still a word that the Church must hear. There are still too many of us who consider ourselves wise but have not yet learned the wisdom of God. There are still too many fights among us because we play by the world's rules of selfish ambition instead of God's rules of service, gentleness, peace-making, and the foolishness of a crucified messiah. And we still too often desire the wrong things or the right things for the wrong reasons instead of desiring and seeking what God has for us. The wisdom of God is not practical knowledge for better living or abstract philosophical sepculation. It is learning to live with humility and trust in the God who has drawn near to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I spend a lot of time working with and thinking about words. The words of Scripture. Words on this blog. Words in worship, sermons and lessons. Words in meetings, conversations, and counseling. And so often those words feel so empty and powerless. In my post just yesterday, I mentioned how often images seem to be able to stir us and provoke us so much more than words can. Even in daily life, words often seem meaningless apart from action. We often won't really deeply trust someone's words until we see that those words are accompanied by appropriate actions.
Perhaps this is because we are all so surrounded by so many words...and so many of them lack depth and meaning. In addition to the 10,000-20,000 words that the average person expends on their own each day, we are inundated by the words of politicians, newscasts, podcasts, facebook friends, blogs, books, sermons, and advertisements. In the midst of all those words, it is easy to begin to wonder how any of them can stand out, how any of these many words can have any real power. Sometimes it seems like there are just a whole lot of people talking and not very many listening. And what good are words in a world where no one is listening?
All of this makes the words of James 3 seem like a bit of hyperbole. Surely something as simple as words could never be as destructive as the fires raging around Los Angeles right now. Surely James is exagerating to make a point. Stick and stones may break my bones but...
...but our kids learn that saying because they need a defense against the words that they know can indeed hurt so badly. Of course, its not just children who have suffered at the words of others. I think everyone has seen or personally experienced friendships, marriages, careers, reputations, families, or churches that have been ripped apart by nothing more than words. The simple words we use to label whole groups of people perpetuates our biases against them. Even the words we use to describe God, whether in our doctrines or our prayers, play an important role in whether or not others will come to know the God we serve.
As inexplicable as it sometimes seems amidst the vast sea of words that floods our world, somehow our words still have power, remarkable power, sometimes the power to give life or to destroy it. As Christians, there have been too many times where we have not chosen our words carefully enough. In our sermons and our prayers, in our evangelism and our prophetic proclamation, even in our conversations with one another, we have too often been wreckless with our speech. As the Church, we must always strive for our words to be a faithful witness to the Word.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Most Sundays I wear black pants with a nice shirt and tie. Occassionally, usually when we have communion but sometimes for other special events, I'll wear a full suit. This Sunday I went to church and preached in jeans and a t-shirt without having shaved for a week and without having showered for a few days. I did this hoping that my outward appearance would add to the message that I was preaching from James 2. (You can listen to my sermon here.)
When I first decided to do this, I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a deal. Many people in our church dress up on Sundays but there are several who dress pretty casually as well. Aside from that, I thought everyone would just assume that I was dressing this way to make a particular point and that everyone would simply wait to see what that point was. In fact, early in the week I think the only reason I would have not dressed this way would have been because I thought it might not be provocative enough to make it worth it. I was surprised by how much tension a simple change in clothing created for both me and for others.
I am a jeans and t-shirt, shave when I feel like it kind of guy. But in a context where most were dressed better than I was and I was expected to be dressed nicely, the comfort of jeans and t-shirt was made to feel uncomfortable and awkward. Never in my life have I wanted to shave and put on a freshly ironed shirt and a tie like I did this past Sunday morning. Perhaps that says more about my own insecurities than anything else but I think it opened my eyes to some things about church as well.
For one thing, this experience was a fresh reminder of how intimidating it can be for someone to visit a church for the first time and how much we as a church must do to help them overcome that anxiety. It's not that the people in our congregation aren't gracious and welcoming. They really, really are. Our congregation is made up of some of the most hospitable and caring people I have ever met. But if I can walk into a church where I already know that I am loved and respected and still be preoccupied with what everyone is thinking about me simply because I am dressed differently, I can only imagine that feeling of insecurity and introspection must be magnified ten fold for a visitor who doesn't yet know whether this is a place where they will be loved and accepted or not. Again, I want to be very clear that this is not a condemnation of our church. I don't think my feeling out of place had so much to do with how everyone responded to me. It had more to do with knowing that the way I was dressed did, in fact, make me out of place. It made me stick out like a sore thumb. Believing that I am not an especially insecure person, I have to imagine that anyone visiting our church for the first time would wrestle with the same feelings because they would also know that they would stick out like a sore thumb regardless of how they are dressed simply because everyone knows that they are new. This speaks to the fact that a smile, a hello, and handshake often won't be enough to overcome the large amounts of anxiety that come with stepping into a completely new and different social situation such as visiting a church.
More to the point of my sermon yesterday, I have to imagine this feeling would only be magnified even more if someone felt like they stood out not only because they were new but also because their clothing made it obvious that they were of a different economic class than most of the people in our church. In churches we often say its important to maintain our buildings and an over all professional appearance in the way we do things so that people feel safe and comfortable in our churches. But honestly I have to wonder exactly what people we have in mind. If everything we do is designed to make upper-middle class families feel more safe and comfortable, won't those same things by their very nature usually make individuals who don't fit that mold feel all the less safe and comfortable?
The tension my clothing created for many in our congregation was palpable. A few found it to just be fun or relaxed but it was easy to see that there were several who were made uncomfortable by what I was wearing. This was a real example of how visual images and symbols have a power to provoke us in a way that words often do not. I imagine that I could have come up with all kinds of clever ways to talk about how God chose the poor but none of those would have had created the same kind of tension that my clothing did. I am not endorsing a crass theatrical approach to preaching where we do whatever we have to do to get and keep people's attention. However, I do think that good preaching allows the gospel to challenge us in ways that are not easily resolved. Of course, bringing that kind of tension to a worship service can be a risky thing. There's always a chance it will be badly misunderstood. There is a constant temptation to clarify what you mean, to help others work through the tension, to make everything plain and simple so that you are sure everyone is "getting it". But when we move too quickly to resolve the tensions that the gospel creates in our lives, we deflate its ability to move us to a new place, a place closer to God. So here's to hoping that the tension created by a simple experiment with jeans and a t-shirt moves myself and the people with whom I minister a little closer to the God that we serve.