Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.

 

Discovering Peace

Psalm 56: 1-13
1Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;  2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High, 3when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  4In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? 5All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.  6They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life, 7so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!  8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?  9Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, 11in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?  12My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.  13For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

This is a high anxiety world and suffering is all around us. I don’t have to tell you that. Globally, nationally, locally, and even in our own homes, the suffering is real and palpable and it causes us to be afraid. And while sometimes words can bring comfort, often times there are no words that bring comfort.

Psalm 56 puts words to the fear we face. It puts words to those in a world who are out to get us. “They trample on me, all day long they are out to get me, my foes oppress me, many fight against me.” I’ve wanted to claim Psalm 56 as the “preacher’s psalm”, but I think I will have to stand in line behind a lot of you who want to claim it as “realtor’s psalm”, “bankers’ psalm”, “teachers’ psalm”, “or (insert your life here) psalm”.

King Charles I, the King of England during the English Civil War, was imprisoned in and ultimately beheaded. During his captivity in 1649 he quoted the first two lines of this psalm, “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; 2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High,” He used verses 1-2 as a response to the taunts of the jailers who were using Psalm 56:1 as THEIR cry, “All day long your foes oppress me.”
We can all relate to Psalm 56. This Psalm speaks to the passion we feel when we just have had enough. “God, c’mon now. You see what’s going on and I’m not a bad person. I’m kind of expecting you to step in here and make things right.” We are not without hope because we are a suffering. The Psalmist chooses to trust in God and we must as well if we want to find peace in an out of control life.

So how can we gain peace in an out of control life? I want to share two things I believe can help.

Reclaim the language of lament

To find or reclaim peace, we must bring all of our lives to God.  It seems that everything we do in our culture is about avoiding negativity because we believe that somehow that doubt will cause us to be failures. We do this in the church really well because we believe that to acknowledge negativity and suffering is somehow a lack of faith – as though by speaking our fears, hurts, and doubts somehow means God has lost control.  This is why in our culture so many of us feel obligated to say things to suffering people like, “It’s gonna be okay, this is gonna make your stronger.”  One of my former professors at Columbia, Walter Brueggeman, says if you read the Psalms and you will find many instances of faith language that speak in the darkness to the darkness. Some may call it a lack of faith, it is really a bold act of faith to cry out to God. Why we can cry out to God we are reaffirming that the world is to be experienced as it is and not in some pretend way. Just because we don’t want pain and suffering doesn’t mean it will go away!! It is a bolder act of faith to cry out to God with nothing out of bounds. Everything can properly be brought to God. To withhold parts of our life and experience is to withhold parts of ourselves from God’s sovereignty. “Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

I remember sitting with a family in their home after they received news of the husbands terminal cancer. With me in the room they tried to negotiate positive language. I was simply listening, and he finally said, “What I want to say to God right now is not very nice.” I told him to say it. He needed to say it.

We must choose hope in God

Hope. We use the word quite a bit, but I’m not sure we know what it really means. Hope in Psalm 56 is a trust in God and it is something we CHOOSE. The Psalmist writes in verse 11-12, “In God I trust…my vows to you I must perform.”
Hope is not only the desire for something but also the expectation of receiving it. Hope is not so much a passion or emotion, as a desire of the will. A decision based not only on our experience of God in the past but our expectation of how God promise He will work. Hope is to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is to expect something with confidence. Hope is . . . to Trust.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that Hope and Faith depend on each other “not only as a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Hope doesn’t just bring comfort, it stands over against suffering and persecution – it protests it!  Our Christian hope looks toward the days when Christ will make all things new. When we hope, it creates in a believer a “passion for the possible.”  Hope stands against the powers of darkness and suffering and says, “God WILL – God will”

Micah 7:7, the prophet writes, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord and confident in Him I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

Recovering the language of lament. Choosing hope in God. These are keys to finding peace in an out of control life.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26 – 16:15
26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest reflects back to a time when he is a child and he and Jenny are standing on a dirt road in front of his house. Bullies approach and begin to throw rocks at Forrest. Jenny helps him up, touches him on the arm and cries out the famous line, “Run, Forrest, Run!” With her encouragement, standing beside Forrest, he is energized and begins to run.  As he runs, he shatters his leg braces (what he calls his, “magic shoes”). In that moment of pressure and persecution, Jenny gives him the encouragement he needs to run free. Forrest says, from that moment on, if I was going somewhere “I was running!”

We all need someone to come alongside of us. Whether it is in our moments of joy or our moments of grief, we all need someone who will help us up, touch us on the arm, speak the truth to us and give us the encouragement we need to run free.
Each week in the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” When we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, we declare our faith in a God who has come alongside all of us in every moment of our lives.  In order for Jesus to be in every one of our hearts and lives, he would have to send the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who dwells in every one of us and comes alongside every one of us.
The Holy Spirit is God with us. And Jesus says in our scripture today that the role of the Advocate is to speak the truth to us and encourage us in our lives.

Jesus tells us in verse 13 that when the Spirit comes, He will guide us in all truth, speaking to us the things He hears the Father saying. I hear people often say the Holy Spirit is our conscience and I do not believe this is correct. Our conscience is our conscience.  I have known people whose conscience have led them to do good things and others who are led to do not so good things.  The Holy Spirit is wholly other than your conscience. The “Spirit of truth” speaks truthfully and bears testimony on Christ’s behalf. The Holy Spirit speaks to our conscience, if we are willing to hear him. But the Spirit will say precisely what the Father and Son have said – nothing different. The Holy Spirit will strengthen the community of believers and enable them to speak the truth about what they have experienced of Jesus the Son. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across Christians who have said, “the Holy Spirit told me ______________ (fill in the blank)” and I think to myself, “That ain’t the Holy Spirit.” If you ever wonder whether it is your conscience or the Holy Spirit, just put it up against the truth that the Father and the Son have already revealed. And, does it glorify the Son.  That’s your test.

In John’s Gospel the essence of love is to be connected to and share deeply in the presence and work of Jesus. In Jesus’ farewell discourse we see him dealing with the disciples’ love and sorrow at his impending departure. Jesus, anticipating the grief they will feel, prepares the disciples for his return to the Father. Although it is time for him to leave them physically, he will continue to be with them spiritually through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is assuring us that he will indeed remain alive in the community, and not just in the community – in the individual Christian.

I think of so many of you who have gone through or are going through difficult times. My mind and heart goes out this week to a young man in our community who was in a car accident Friday, Tucker Anderson. As difficult and horrible as all these things are for friends and family, I continue to see how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those impacted bringing comfort – reminding them of the presence of God.
Every single one of us has been touched by or will be touched by moments of life where we need the presence of God in our lives to be real and powerful. The Holy Spirit is always with us, but often it isn’t until we really need the encouragement of God that the eyes of our hearts open to sense that he is alongside of us – helping us up off the ground, giving us the encouragement we need to trust for the next moment.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who is with us, guiding us in all truth and coming alongside us to heal and encourage.

Break the Silence…Lament!

Read Psalm 74

We are told all the time that all our problems are solvable.  The wars are solvable – we need either more or less troops.  Our illnesses are solvable – we just need the correct diagnosis and the right medicine.  Our poverty is solvable – “those” people just need to work.  The problem with this assumption is we all know it is not true.  Life is more complex and intricate than we often assume.

One of the powerful messages we are reclaiming during the Lenten season at Wesley is that the Hebrews did not feel that masking the emotional pain of life was appropriate.  They brought their pain to God and cried out in God’s presence.  They were not afraid to speak these prayers of darkness to God.  They believed that this was the only way faith worked – you bring the good to God and you bring the bad to God.  You bring all things to God.

The lament of Psalm 74 is a communal cry and prayer of the Israelites as the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 576 BC.  You can hear their cry as the elements and carvings of the temple are destroyed.  You can feel the pain as they desecrate the holy space.

Professor Walter Brueggemann gives us some wonderful insights regarding the Psalms, especially the lament Psalms.  This “outline” of lament may help us to reclaim our cry. (Spirituality of the Psalms)

First, Brueggeman says that a lament is a cry of expression that always addresses the Lord God. What is said to God may be scandalous and offend some of our sensibilities; but the ones who lament are completely committed, and they believe whatever must be said must be said directly to God who partners with us. We have permission to speak freely, but that speech is always directed to God – honestly and openly.  We bring all we are TO God.  A lament is not a cursing of God, but it is an honest prayer and expression TO God.

Second, the Rev. Dr. Claus Westermann, the great 20th century Old Testament scholar, pointed out the distinctive pattern of the lament.  There is an inherited way it is done.  There is order to it.  This order of the prayer was/is recognized by the Israelites.  The lament has two components:

  • The Plea which is a complaint that God should correct a skewed situation.
  • The Praise where the one praying always moves from a sense of urgency and desperation to joy, gratitude, and well-being.

In Matthew 8:1-4, there is a brief healing story.  “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.””

In his book Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament, Walter Brueggemann shows how this healing story models for us the way that lament works as a powerful means to address the emotional pain in our lives and not just mask the symptoms.

First, the leper comes to Jesus and admits his status and despair – his “plea”.  He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than one of the most wounded. He doesn’t come to Jesus on his terms, pretending to have control over his life.  He kneels before Christ and says “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  I am unclean, I am broken, I am weary and I am downtrodden – but you can make me clean.

Second, we notice the trust this healed man places in Jesus.  What if Jesus wouldn’t heal him?  But is more than that, there is an ongoing trust.  He trusted Jesus with not only his initial healing but also with whatever was to come after – to go to the priests and present offerings (and keep the healing quiet).

We have seen this trust in all the lament Psalms we’ve read so far this Lenten season.  There is a definitive plea and always a move to praise…even in the midst of fear and pain.

The lament points out that there are no easy and quick solutions to many things in life.  Not every problem is “solvable”.  But that does not mean we lose our voice.  The Psalms of lament say to us, “you can go to God in darkness and despair and speak to God, and in that plea we can place our trust in God.”