Death–I Understand It, But I Don’t

July 7, 2020

If the title may sound a bit confusing, there is a good reason. Often confusion is a consequence of death leaving us with more questions than answers. I have lived it and seen it frequently in others—even the most prepared and informed of others. Death is what it is—an enemy will all shall face.

And that part I do understand on one level. Death is a consequence of sin—the fall of man along with the brokenness of the world. This is how the Bible frames it in the creation narrative (Genesis 3:17-19). Since that fallen moment it has become part of the corrupted earth—an accepted but hardly welcomed part of life. Scripture plainly states that it is coming for everyone (Hebrews 9:27). When it comes it brings separation, heartbreak, and mourning—especially when unexpected. Death is part of Satan’s arsenal. It plays a major role in his desire to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). The wonderful heavenly news however, is that death does not have the final say. God has countered death with life. The empty tomb does not just provide the optics for this, but also the guarantee. Death will ultimately and completely be eradicated by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:26). This promise; this reality provides us hope and confidence that death does not have the final victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)—that in Christ Jesus it will not “sting” us in its forever form. Perhaps with a most mature understanding of this theology, we could even reach a point in which we consider death differently as it brings us one step closer to being with God (as the apostle Paul discussed in Philippians 1:21-23). Certainly, knowing all of this should lead to an embracing of the apostle John’s urging of remaining faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10). Yes, I do understand how the Bible presents death—the cause, the consequences, the remedy, the theology. From a “head” perspective I get it. It is just with the “heart” I struggle.

I struggle when children die; when young mothers are taken away from their children; when fathers leave far too soon; when murder invades lives and brings destruction far beyond just the act itself; when families are devastated by death. It all seems so unfair; so unjust; so uncalled for. I cry out—how long—to God (I am not the first: Psalm 13; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10); how long until Jesus returns; completely defeats death; eliminating all injustice along with the pain that accompanies it?

These are the yearnings and questions of my heart and at times, they override the understanding in my head. So, I understand death, but then again, I do not. Unfortunately, this is the tension in which I will continue to live because I will continue to live—until death comes for me—in this broken-down world. Of course, Jesus understands that, having entered this brokenness with me (Hebrews 4:14-16). So all I can do on those occasions when no theology will sooth my pain is to cling to him; trust; not give up; and double down on the hope found in him. What other choice do I have? What other approach makes any sense? How else can I handle it? If I allow death to defeat me now, it will surely defeat me then.

I think perhaps all of this is what Paul had in mind as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: 58 to conclude some of his thoughts on this topic:

So, my dear brothers and sisters, stand strong. Don’t let anything change you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord. You know that your work in the Lord is never wasted. (ERV)

“Never wasted”—above all I do not want the enemy to come only to realize that my life was wasted. This makes death all the more tragic. My head and my heart will likely continue to be in tension over death, but I want both to belong to Jesus even as I deal with the pain and the questions.

Lord come quickly.


Sometimes Now I Just Do Not Know What To Say

June 16, 2020

Words are my thing. As a preacher, words are my trade. I have been called by God to speak truth in love to all kinds of situations; to apply biblical teaching from its context to ours; to address the wonderful words of life to sometimes our less than wonderful circumstances. I take that seriously. I do my best to not allow my own agenda to get in the way (difficult at times if I am honest) to simply present God’s message. And usually I can find the words, perhaps not eloquently spoken or pleasing to all, but my best honest effort to preach and teach God’s word.

Words—typically I can find them.

Now, however, that is not always the case—particularly on matters of race. As I have witnessed the unfolding of events in our country; the reaction that they are sparking; the politicizing of it all—sometimes I do not know what to say or how to say it. I find myself swept up in diverse, often confrontive voices coming at me from different places. According to who I am speaking with, I can either be not “woke” enough or am part of the problem that is destroying our country. Some say that because of my skin color—as a white man—I have no voice at all and am inherently part of the problem. Some are asking why I am not standing up more for injustice. Others may think I have already said quite enough about it; that I need to move on to something else. I have been asked at times, “whose side are you on?” To which I’ve replied, “I am trying to be on the Lord’s side.” (Judged by the reaction—apparently those aren’t the right words either).

So now, sometimes, maybe ofttimes, I do not know what to say. I find myself struggling for words. Words to express my heartbreak over racial injustice; proper words to engage this struggle that will not trigger someone or disappoint; proper words to speak to everyone of every color struggling with the same feelings; words to do my best to encourage the maintaining of the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace among God’s people during a time that threatens to rip us apart.

I have tried silence; not adding any words to the avalanche of them that already exist on this issue, but my silence is not seen as acceptable. Plus God does call us to speak to injustice, but with the right words–his words–those I am struggling to find.

I find myself wondering—do I speak about my upbringing in the heart of the Mississippi Delta during a time of overt racism and social unrest? Do I mention my experiences in college and beyond in Mississippi as I spent a great deal of time in African-American churches of Christ; and some of the fallout I personally dealt with as a result? Is that self-serving or disingenuous? Is that making it about me and trying to prove that I  can relate or have some kind of credibility behind the words? I don’t know.

I look around our church and am thankful for the diversity. It also makes me aware of the diversity of thought—folks of all colors and backgrounds. I have to have words for them all—at least that is how I understand it. Words that will encourage growth, acceptance, understanding, repentance if necessary and most of all, love for all—knowing that not everyone is even at the same place in their spiritual journey.

It is not a new challenge. The more I understand the New Testament context and experience the struggle today, the more I am amazed that they even pulled church off. The divide between Jew and Gentile; slave and free; even male and female in that world was incredible, yet they eventually were able to bridge it—in Christ Jesus—and change an empire as a result. They had the right words—divine words to speak. I am trying my best to speak these same words to our context, but I do realize—I am not Paul or Peter or John and I certainly am not Jesus.

So please pray for me as I seek the right words to address racial injustice; to speak for the disenfranchised and overlooked; to spark growth among us all; to encourage unity; acceptance and love for one another; to help those who are confused; who feel left behind; who feel threatened; to trust all the more in Christ; to lift him up above all; to push us all to seek the kingdom first above everything else.

Sometimes now I just do not know what to say. Sometimes I just want to cry. But I also know God is calling me to find the words. So, I will keep trying—trying to be faithful to God and faithful to his people.

 


Why Get Out of Bed?

May 22, 2020

Is it just me or is anyone else weary of the doom and gloom? Of course, the virus is a real thing—a threat that has done much damage and continues to challenge us all. And according to most news outlets it will never leave us, always plague us, forever change everything. It makes me nervously wonder, is there no small hint of light at the end of this tunnel? Not if you scan the headlines.

But not to worry, if it is not the virus coming for us, it will be the murder hornets—expect some to buzz menacingly by any minute in droves or whatever bunches of murder hornets are called. In case you escape that, I saw today that hurricanes are intensifying and once again we will face one of the worst-ever-in-all-of-history hurricane seasons.  If nature does not doom us, maybe it will be something horrible the president does or congress does (or do to each other) or the meat shortage or the lack of toilet paper. A good friend just wrote an article on why us preacher/pastor types are going to soon come crashing down due to COVID induced pressure.

As I process all of this, I quickly realize—I got no chance! Maybe I just need to pull myself away from binging Netflix, hop in my truck, grab my mask and hand sanitizer and drive off into the sunset (at least gas is cheap right now). I mean, why even get out of bed? It is like we all are having Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day—every day–without end.

As you may have gathered, I am not the most patient of people. And yes, I do realize my blessings—of health, of family, of home, of friends, of job. But honestly, the gloom, despair and agony (Sa-lute! If you get this reference) is quite enough, thank you.

I Need the Assembly

To top it off, we cannot yet gather for worship. Oh, how I miss the assembly! I will refrain from launching into a theological discourse on its design, significance and firm biblical foundation and just say—I want to hear my brother’s and sister’s voices in praise to God; I so desire the encouragement and strength that comes from being together; I miss the folks that sit near and far from me in the pews; I miss the energy that is generated from our gatherings. I need it. Livestreaming is good and all that, but it is a stream that is getting a tad shallow for me, right now. I keep praying that soon and very soon worship together can happen again.

I do not know when that may be; I know we must be safe and use caution; I realize all of that, but I still miss it. I long for the time when we can reassemble; not be afraid to embrace; to sing with all of our hearts; to be family again. But I keep hearing it may never again be the same. I so pray not. If not, I think I will move to Australia.

Think on These Things

Okay, maybe not. Instead I need to somehow counter the gloom and doom; to detach from whatever screen is numbing me with troublesome headlines and projections of forever depression, recession, oppression, repression, digression, etc. and find a balance—some good news for a change. Thankfully, I have some help here. I am thinking specifically of the apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:8. Instead of fearing hornets and hurricanes, it would help if I dwelt on what is true, what is noble, and what is right and pure. Instead of binging some dystopian TV show, it would lift me to embrace what is lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Of course, all flow from the goodness of God—and that is a game-changer even in a pandemic. Maybe that is why Paul also says in this text to “Not be anxious about anything.” (But have you seen the latest numbers on the virus?) Instead, he continues, “but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6). That is a whole lot of positive to think on. Thank you, Paul! Maybe, just maybe it will drive out the thoughts of hordes of hornets coming to get me. Maybe, just maybe the peace of God, which passes all understanding will define my days and not the doom and gloom.

Why get out of bed? There are all kinds of true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy reasons. I just have to clear my head and heart and remember them. Oh, I also have to remember that I probably won’t find them on the news or on most tik tok videos. I will find them, though, in the God of peace. Nothing can separate me from him, by the way, not even viruses, hornets, or hurricanes.

Soon and very soon Lord! I really do not want to move to Austrailia.

 


Wisdom from the Wilderness

March 25, 2020

Do you feel like you may be in the wilderness right now? Quarantines; viruses; isolation; uncertainty–all combined can certainly make us feel like we are on a wilderness wandering.

Of course, there was a group in history that actually was stuck in the wlderness. Scripture uses it as a watershed event–a crucial part of the biblical narrative and not just for Israel. Numerous wilderness lessons abound. Perhaps now is a perfect time to revisit some of them.

  • The Call to Trust is Primary. From the start with their backs to the Red Sea, God called Israel to explicitly trust in him. Theirs was a journey to establish the kind of trust that would accomplish the task of nation-building. Israel was never more Israel when they actually processed, understood and acted in faith on this. Often though, they did not exhibit this kind of trust and suffered as a result. But God delivered them and delivered on his promises anyway. The call to trust is still primary. Christ’s ministry only reinforced this need (John 14:1). If we can learn to fully embrace trust then we can largely eliminate worry, doubt and everything else that robs us of the joy of God’s promises. Especially now–let’s trust God with all we are.
  • God is Always Near. Israel had God in their sights–literally–both day and night (Exodus 13:21). They experienced Sinai first-hand. They witnessed Moses’s makeover after being with God. God was near. They saw it and felt it. We are equally assured that God is an “ever present help in our time of need’ (Psalm 46:1). The apostle Paul told a group of skeptics, that he is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27). This is why we can trust! Even if we are isolated in quarantine, we are never alone. Just as he saw Israel through, he will see us through as well.
  • Always Push Toward the Promise. The wilderness was merely a temporary challenge. The Promise Land made every one of those challenges worth it. Some in Israel lost sight of this promise; lacked trust; forgot that God was near; grew faithless and stopped pushing toward that promise. This is one reason we know their story–why it is embedded in biblical narrative–so we can learn better. No matter what comes let’s “press on toward the goal” to borrow Paul’s phrase (Philippians 3:14). Let’s never allow whatever wilderness we face to defeat trust in us. We have our own promised place to realize (John 14 again).

No one wants to feel lost in a barren wilderness or face uncertain times, dealing with an unknown virus. If there is anything we can gain from the wilderness story, it is that no matter what looms ahead of us–it must be engaged with a ferocious sense of faith and trust. God will see us through.


We Will Understand It All By And By

March 18, 2020

Last Sunday at Levy–for our first live-stream only worship due to COVID-19, I presented a message from Romans 8, centering around verse 18 which states:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 

Then this week I discovered an old article I had written also based in this text which I had totally forgotten (funny how God works like that). I am not sure when I wrote it, but it does demonstrate how, as long as we are in the world we will have trouble (to paraphrase Christ). In it I reference the old hymn, “Farther Along.” So, I thought I would share that article here.

Tempted and tried we are oft made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long. 

This song lyric echoes the thought many of us are having currently. With all of the world turmoil increasing daily and all of the domestic problems escalating, many do wonder. In some ways it has always been this way and always will be. The early church struggled through persecution and frustration to never-the-less expand the kingdom. Some gave their lives as a result. I am sure they likely wondered why things were so then, only now to understand better. One day we will have a broader understanding as well. As for now we are called to have faith–faith to trust in and rely on the blessings of God. Some of these blessings are shared with us in Romans 8:16-39. Blessings that are guaranteed to help us overcome and understand. If not now then by and by. Here is what we have in Christ:

  • Adoption–“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Think of that! We are the sons and daughters of God. He has adopted us (see also Ephesians 1:5) and put us into his family with our brother Christ. No matter how tough our world may get–no one can take this away.
  • Inheritance–“heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” We share equally with Christ in all of the vast treasure of heaven. Unfortunately, because of the fallen world, suffering is included, but just for now. This is how we can endure through the suffering because we know one day God has something new and much better in store.
  • Future Glory–“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” That wonderful verse again. It is the by and by part, which enables us to maybe understand a tad bit more. Whatever hardships we face now are minimal compared to this glory (see also 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Hope is found here–real hope–that should serve as an anchor for us to hold on to and endure. God has something renewing planned for his entire creation–including us and it will be glorious.
  • Victory–“Now in all these things we are more than conquerors.” In Christ we have heavenly resources that nothing can stop–not a war, not a recession, (not a virus!), not anything! Nothing will separate us from the love of God and the glory awaiting us in him.

Now with all of this in mind we can begin to view world events and domestic problems differently. God is still in control (vs 28). In him we have steadfast hope. And while things may not be as we like, don’t worry. We will understand it all by and by.

When we see Jesus coming in glory. When he comes from his home in the sky. Then we shall meet him in that bright mansion. We’ll understand it all by and by.