When Doubt and Faith Collide

doubting thomas

I suspect that we’ve all faced doubts and fears.

I’ve talked with many parents who are are concerned about their children’s future. I’ve journeyed with many people who are coming to the end of their lives; and I have learned that even faith-filled Christians have some serious questions and doubts (and even some fears) about what’s going to happen to them after they die. The Sacred Story that we find in the pages of the Bible reminds us that Jesus’ disciples were devastated after Jesus was killed, and that Jesus’ disciples were filled with joy and faith after He was raised from the dead. The Sacred Story is a story where doubt and faith collide; and, perhaps, that’s why the Bible continues to help us to make sense out of life, and to help us to understand how we can continue to live and flourish as people of faith in a challenging world.

In this week’s message, “When Doubt and Faith Collide”, we encounter the story of a man named Thomas (perhaps, better known to you as “Doubting Thomas”).

Thomas was a follower of Jesus, and he spent three years of his life in the “inner circle” of Jesus’ closest companions. Thomas was at the wedding feast when Jesus turned water into wine, and Thomas watched Jesus heal many lepers and people who were ill. Thomas had listened to Jesus tells stories. Thomas had watched Jesus embarrass people. Thomas had listened to Jesus talk about the fact that He was going to be killed, and he had heard Jesus talk about being raised from the dead. And Thomas, like all of the other followers of Jesus, was absolutely devastated when Jesus was killed and was sealed in a tomb.

But, Thomas wasn’t in the room with the other disciples when the Risen Christ appeared. Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Can you almost hear Thomas saying: “Seeing is believing”? Can you hear Thomas say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true”? Maybe you live your life believing those very same words? Maybe, we shouldn’t be so hard on Thomas?

But the Sacred Story reminds us that the disciples continued to love Thomas.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need people who aren’t afraid to stand beside us, and who aren’t afraid to let us express our deepest doubts and fears.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need people who are willing to meet us wherever we are in life, and who won’t try to “make things better” by offering shallow platitudes.

When we’re going through tough times, we all need folks who will continue to look for creative ways to love and support us in a world where even our closest friends are going to tell us, “If you need anything, give me a call!” – as they return to their normal routines.

I’ll never forget the day when one of my closest friends told me, “What I need most of all right now is someone to simply remind me that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ hasn’t been turned off.” Now, those are honest and authentic words, aren’t they?

The Sacred Story speaks about love and human embrace. It’s a story that reminds us that it’s “not good” for us to travel through life alone. And it’s a story that continues to remind us that the Risen Christ will always be found in places where God’s people reach-out to each other, embrace each other, shine light into each other’s lives, and honestly care and support each other. The Sacred Story reminds us that we need each other.

Doubts and fears are healed as people continue to live in “community” with each other, and as they listen to stories about the ways that God’s been acting in other people’s lives. And so, in it’s deepest sense, the Sacred Story reminds us, this week, of what it means to be the Church of the Risen Christ – a gathering where people love each other, encourage each other, build each other up, and stand beside each other through thick and thin – sharing the Sacred Story and speaking with each other about the ways that God’s been at work in their lives in a challenging world.

When Grief and Easter Collide

easter pic 3

I shared the news of my father’s death with you three weeks ago.

My 95-year-old Dad’s health began to change rather quickly right after Christmas. We did our best to navigate through the ups-and-downs, and we put our heads together and we figured-out what to do every time life threw us another curve.  But three weeks ago, right in the middle of Lent, everything took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse and my father died. I shared my tribute with you on the next day: “When Your Dad Dies”

The days that followed my Dad’s death were both busy and numbing. We needed to call the funeral home and give them some time to prepare my Dad’s body for the visitation. My sisters and I hosted a short visitation three days after our father died; and then, we had a short service, and a private burial on a cold and bitter afternoon. My Dad’s body was lowered into the ground right after I performed a short committal at the cemetery; and, right after that, my family and I faced what I’d call a “pregnant moment.” There’s that “pregnant moment” of silence when you’re standing at the edge of a grave and you realize that there’s nothing else that you can do. And, as much as you’d like to stay there a little longer, you know in your heart that it’s time to walk away. And then, you hop into your car and just drive….

One of the things that I’ve learned through all of this is that when people that we love fall into a raging river there’s not a whole lot that we can do. And so,  I returned to work and  continued to prepare for Easter. I wrote a short sermon about love for Maundy Thursday. I prepared a short series of meditations focused upon the “Stations of the Cross” for Good Friday and used those meditations to share some things I have learned about care-giving, compassion, forgiveness, and facing the moment of a loved-one’s death as I’ve shared my Dad’s final journey with him. But, I was still left in that “pregnant moment” where we all find ourselves right after we bury someone that we’ve loved and need to walk away. And then, right in the middle of Holy Week, it hit me….

This year’s Easter message, “When Grief and Easter Collide”, moves to the very core of hope in the Sacred Story that we share. Shortly after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the very people who had shouted “Hosanna!” decided that He needed to die. In just a few short days, a man who appeared to be doing quite well was arrested and was put on trial. A man, who appeared to be doing quite well just a few days earlier, was swept into a raging river that led to a savage beating, crucifixion, and bloody death. And then, just a short time after Jesus died, His body was removed from the Cross and it was prepared for burial. The opening of the cold, dark Tomb was sealed as Jesus’ family and closest friends stood there in silence. And then they (just like myself and other members of my Dad’s remaining family) needed to walk away.

But, the Sacred Story tells us that the “pregnant moment” that occurs after someone is sealed in a grave isn’t the end. The women returned to the Tomb and discovered that the stone has been rolled away. A man dressed in dazzling white told them that Jesus – who once was dead – had been raised to new life. And in that moment, the Sacred Story takes us to that critical moment in life when faith and harsh realities collide. The Sacred Story is one that speaks a word of hope and peace “When Grief and Easter Collide.”

My journey from the sadness of Good Friday to the joyous celebration of Easter this year has, once again, reminded me that God takes care of us no matter what we face in life or in death. The Sacred Story has taught me that, sometimes, we need to slow down because God’s power can be experienced in new ways during pregnant moments filled with pain and loneliness. The Sacred Story that tells us about a glorious Day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes drew me to a place – to the Church – where people supported me and surrounded me and sang songs of great hope and faith that I’m not ready to sing yet. The Sacred Story drew me to a place – to the gathering of God’s faithful people – where I was reminded that I’m going to see my Dad again – in a place where we’re not going to have to worry about life throwing us curves, and in a place where we’ll finally find the peace and rest that we crave.

Easter is a special moment in time when life and eternity collide. Easter is a glorious day when we remember that when the raging waters of life sweep people that we love away from us, it’s not the end of the story!

Christ is risen! An empty Tomb bears witness to the fact that our tombs – and the tombs of the people that we love and have loved – will be empty someday, too. “When Grief and Easter Collide”, death and decay are swallowed-up in the victory of Christ!

The Great Liturgy of my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition announces:

“Tonight, Hell groans: ‘My power has vanished. I received One who died as mortals die, but I could not hold Him. With Him and through Him, I lost those over which I ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began; and lo, He raises them all up with Him to shine in glory.”

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

 

What Comes After Easter?

easter pic 2

What’s Next?

The Sacred Story of our faith has carried us through the Season of Lent and to another celebration of Easter. We’ve explored 5 Faith Practices that can strengthen our lives of faith, build-up our families, help us raise faith-filled children and grandchildren, and even strengthen our ministry as a church. We were challenged to reflect upon Christ’s call to love each other and to live-well with each other on Maundy Thursday, and we explored what it means to love and extend compassion as we gathered in the dark shadow of the Cross on Good Friday. And then, on Easter, we witnessed the dramatic collision of grief and hope, and we were reminded that we are the carriers of a Sacred Story that has the life-giving power to change people’s lives and to shape the future of our world.

And now, we find ourselves standing in a very different part of the Sacred Story.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [the body of Jesus.] And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the Tomb.” (Mark 16:1-2) The women who went to the Tomb had heavy hearts and grave concerns about the future. Life hadn’t unfolded in the way that they had expected, and there were many reasons to be afraid. And, when they got to the Tomb, the women experienced the totally unexpected. Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead! The empty Tomb stood as a clear sign that our God doesn’t remain silent in a world where the raging rivers of life sweep people away. And we can still celebrate that fact on Easter. We can still celebrate the fact that we have a God who comes into the world to shatter the darkness and to bring life-giving Light once again.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome could have walked away from the Tomb and said nothing. They could have very easily said to each other, “Wow! What we just witnessed is incredible, and it’s something that fills our hearts with faith!” They could have returned to their homes and families, to their friends and acquaintances, and to the places where they lived and worked without saying a word. And the Sacred Story may have ended right then and there. One of the most important things that we need to remember in the days and weeks after Easter is that, if people hadn’t continued to share the Sacred Story with each other, Easter would probably be just another ordinary day of the year—much like any other day.

What’s Next?

We live in world where Easter just IS another ordinary day of the year for many people. Easter’s a day when little children hunt for Easter eggs and eat chocolate, and it’s a day when people peel foil-covered chocolate eggs and eat yellow peeps. We live in a world filled with people who rush to the Easter buffet to get ahead of the “Church crowd,” and where schools coincidentally schedule “Spring Break” at Easter. And in that same world, we’re stunned by violence and bullying. We continue to be shocked by incidents of road rage and to be stunned by the shooting of innocent students in our public schools. We don’t always speak to each other in helpful ways, and we often walk away from people who don’t think about life in the same ways that we do. And, ironically, the Sacred Story tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by any of that…. The Sacred Story continues to point us toward the fact that mere human beings don’t have the power to transform our world into the place that God created it to be. Secular humanism has clearly failed – and humanity’s best route forward continues to be found in an ongoing process of death and resurrection.

We have a mighty task before us as carriers of the Sacred Story.

God continues to call us to live-well with each other, to encourage each other, to forgive each other, to build each other up, and to spur each other on. Christ continues to call us to interpret our lives through the lens of the story of God’s love, and Christ continues to draw us together into a community of love where He nourishes us. Christ continues to call us to share the Sacred Story of God’s welcome, love and warm embrace in a world where people continue to divide themselves into smaller and smaller groups. Christ is a Risen Lord who continues to call us to serve each other, to surround those who struggle with our warm embrace, to feed the hungry, to spend some time with the lonely, to help people who are struggling with illnesses that we don’t fully understand, and to be a voice for those who have no voice in a world that’s content to simply leave them in the dust.

What’s Next?

St. James once wrote: “Be doers of the word, and not just hearers only” (James 1:22); and, I believe, that that’s the great mission that’s set before those who see themselves as Easter people. The Sacred Story reminds us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome could have walked away from the Tomb and said nothing—but they didn’t do that because they knew that they had something important to share with the world. The women who came to the Tomb on that first Easter morning could have easily said, “Wow! What we just witnessed is incredible, and it’s something that fills our hearts with faith!” And then, they could have returned to their homes and families, to their friends and acquaintances, and to the places where they lived and worked without saying a word. And the Sacred Story may have ended right then and there.

How will you be changed by the Sacred Story’s proclamation of Christ’s victory?

We live in a world filled with little children who are being taught that hunting for colored eggs, eating chocolate, peeling foil-covered chocolate eggs and biting the heads off yellow peeps is what Easter is all about. We live in a world filled with children who are being taught that they need to rush to the Easter buffet, so that they can get ahead of the “Church crowd”—and we’re teaching those same little children that Easter is nothing more than an excuse for a “Spring Break.”

Will we, as God’s people, allow that trend to simply continue unchallenged, or will we continue to understand that we are the carriers of a Sacred Story that speaks of hope and new life in the face of life’s great unanswered questions?

What’s Next?

When Your Dad Dies

Dad Picture

My dad died at the ripe old age of 95 this week.

My dad taught me how to throw a football and he was the first man that I called a hero. He was a veteran of World War II and he always referred to that war as “the one we won.” My dad was a man who loved his family and he was a man who devoted years of his life to helping children who were crippled or badly burned through his tireless devotion to the Shriner’s hospitals. He was a Christian who stood beside me on Sunday mornings to guide me through the worship service—never imagining that he was raising a future pastor. My dad taught me some of the great truths of life and he was a man of his word who often told me, “If I tell you that the sun isn’t going to rise tomorrow morning, you better take a flashlight to bed with you.”

But, my dad was far from perfect.

He taught me that parents do the best that they can when they’re raising their kids; and, sometimes, they make mistakes because kids don’t come with a set of directions. He taught me that, sometimes, parents need to work when their kids want them to be doing something else and that parents sometimes live to regret that. My dad taught me that people are like porcupines; and that they, sometimes, stick each other when they get too close to each other. But through it all, my dad also taught me that relationships are the most important part of life and that we need to be true to our word even when circumstances change, and when it would be easy to justify breaking a promise.

My dad also taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about life in his last few years.

He taught me to live my life well because even 95 years pass quickly. He taught me that years pass in a flash and that I need to spend time with the people that I love because none of us knows whether tomorrow is even on the calendar. He taught me, many times, that the richest moments in life are lived during the interruptions that we experience at inconvenient times. A war story can be shared in a doctor’s office. A childhood memory can be shared during a trip to the hospital. A word of thanks and appreciation can melt your heart when you’re ready to spit bullets because your daily routine was interrupted again. My dad taught me that you’re never too old to enjoy cake—to share a beer with your son—or to eat half of a pizza.

It’s hard to journey with your dad when you know that the end is near.

I was always humbled by the fact that my dad trusted me to handle his finances and to make medical decisions for him when he no longer understood what was happening to him. My dad and I walked together through thick and thin; and, when life threw us a curve, we did the best that we could to handle it. My dad was blessed by some of the greatest doctors and nurses that I’ve ever met—people who never grew weary as I continued to ask them long lists of questions that I had about the words they used and the procedures they recommended—and those doctors and nurses taught me how important it is to trust in the gifts and expertise that other people have . My dad was truly blessed by the staff and nurses at the assisted living home where he spent the last years of his life—primarily because he didn’t know enough about cooking to boil an egg. And perhaps most of all, my dad demonstrated the importance of friendships as he enjoyed the relationship that he shared with the fine, young couple who lived beside him while he was still living at home and as he developed a close friendship with a dear man that he met in his early 90’s.

The end is never easy, but it always comes.

My dad reminded me once again, in the last few hours of his life, that the moment of death is one of the most holy moments in life. I still remember holding my mom’s hand and saying, “We love you”—knowing that those were the very last words that she would hear as she slipped into eternity. God draws near to us at the moment of death. I picture the moment of death as a sacred and God-filled space where we hold one hand of the person that we love, and God holds the other. It’s an incredibly intimate moment with God. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the sacred moment of death is the time when we’re the closest to God. It’s all about trust and hope. It’s all about knowing that God is in control of everything. And then, in a holy moment, we open our hands and we release the one that we love. And Christ whispers into our ear, “I am the resurrection and the life and those who believe in me will live even though they die.” And then, there’s silence. It is finished and the person that we have loved and cherished is left in the hands of God. My dad is in the hands of God and I can know that, even as I write these words, all is well.

And now, another journey begins.

Healing takes a long time. I deleted my dad’s telephone number from the contact list in my cellphone tonight because I know that if I call that number nobody will answer. I received a few cards from some people who want me to know that they care about me. I needed to work in the office today because I need to have a sermon prepared for the weekend. The silence is deafening. I sense that a chapter of my life has ended and that things will never again be what they once were. But I know that God is with me because my dad told me the story of Jesus and helped me to grow up to be a man of faith. I know that God is going to surround me with people at the church that I serve as a pastor–people who will sings songs on Easter that I’m not ready to sing yet. God has blessed me with a wonderful wife—a woman who is truly “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” All is well.

My dad taught me how to throw a football and he was the first man that I called a hero. He was a veteran of World War II and he always referred to that war as “the one we won.” But my dad was also a man of faith who taught me that, no matter what we face in life or in death, God is going to be with us and God will raise us up. And that’s how I know that my dad’s OK tonight and that I’m going to be OK, too.

 

 

God’s Creating Something New!

Butterfly

The Biblical theme of “darkness” has always fascinated me.

The Bible tells us that God moved around in the darkness long before He ever said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3) God wrestled with Jacob in the darkness (Genesis 32:22-31), and Jacob saw a ladder reaching into Heaven in the darkness (Genesis 28:10-12). We read that God moved through the land of Egypt and “passed over” the homes of the Israelites (Exodus 12:12) in the darkness. We read that the tomb of Jesus was found empty “at early dawn” (Luke 24:1) because God had raised the Christ in the darkness.

It’s easy for us to be overcome by the darkness these days. North Korea has been rattling its nuclear swords; and, last week, we witnessed the strategic dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs.” We’ve heard about innocent people being killed by poisonous gas in Syria and about millions of people starving to death in Africa. People are dying, every day, from drug overdoses and churches need to carefully screen volunteers before allowing them to work with children. We live in a world where relationships are hard, where our marriages can crumble and fall apart, and where young people are being bullied while they attend school.

And yet, the God who has worked “in the darkness” through all of human history is hard at work today! God’s creating something new, and God’s restoring what has been broken and what needs to be healed!

In this week’s message, “God’s Creating Something New!”, we’re reminded that God is at work in our world and that the forces of good shall prevail. The message of Easter is one that reminds us that, when it’s all said and done, the forces of good and the forces of God will surely prevail! And that’s what we really need to know, isn’t it?

Easter reminds us that God shall triumph; but Easter, also, sends us back into the world as people with a mission. Every time we leave our homes and our churches, we return to a world where we’ll be surrounded by darkness and bad news. Every time we leave our homes and churches, we’re challenged to speak to others with a conviction that springs from Easter courage and Easter hope!

Jesus Christ is risen! All the forces of evil and pain and brokenness have crumbled before the power of a God who even raises the dead! And, today, we can live our lives knowing that all of us – all of the people we love – and all of the people in our world – are securely held in the hands of a God who continues to work “in the darkness” and Who has surely promised us that He’ll lift us up to a better and more glorious Day.

Alleluia!