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Author: Robbie

I am the Youth and Family Minister for the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. I married the love of my life Heather and with her we are blessed with two sons and two daughters.

The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

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[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

Standing in the Gaps

“Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows” (Neh. 4:14).

This past Sunday I taught the adult class and we looked at Nehemiah 4. Nehemiah is a book about the people of God rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem yet the rebuilding is more about the people than it is the walls. Like any good story there are the protagonists (Nehemiah and the workers) and the antagonists (Sanballat and Tobiah). Like any successful villain, Sanaballat and Tobiah try to thwart the workers from accomplishing their task. They try criticism, slander, ridicule, public shame and when all of those fail, things get violent. As we read through Nehemiah 4 one of my youth group parents made this comment:

“I love how they put people in the gaps to protect them.”

I honestly did not think about that. Then a brother made this comment:

“They put families there too which was smart because I might not die to protect someone else but I’ll die to protect my family.”

I didn’t think of that either. Nehemiah put people families in the gaps—the vulnerable spots in the wall—to protect the progress of the wall but ultimately to obey what God was blessing.

Standing in the gaps.

Who is standing in your gaps protecting you while you obey the task God has given you? Is it your spouse? A mentor? A confidant? A spiritual director? A group of ladies at church? A men’s group? A parent?

When I resigned from Main Street a few years ago I remember being in a really bad place. Folks who I thought stood in my gap suddenly stopped calling, texting or dropping by. I don’t blame them as people have to move on. Yet, I needed people to help. We attended a church for a few months and I can’t tell you how many times this church stepped up in helping us. In a time we were vulnerable they stood in the gaps.

So…

Who is standing in your gap? Find someone.

7 Quick Reasons Why Your Church Cannot Grow

For the past few months my mind has been on mission and reaching folks who are lost. There are some of you who are like, “Dude, I thought that is kind of your job.” It is but the fact of the matter is that there is more to ministry than mission but that is another post. The teens and I have gone through some discussion on Sunday morning about mission and this has really got me thinking a lot about it. The term “missional churches” has been a Christian buzzword for close to a decade now. I love the way Ed Stetzer defines it in a post he wrote for Christianity Today:

Being missional conveys the idea of living on a purposeful, Biblical mission. Mission is the reason the church exists and the church joins Jesus on mission. And, this mission is from everywhere to everywhere.

I like that definition for mission. Using that as a definition I want to share some things where I think the church is missing the boat. There are other posts that parse it better but this is where I see our churches struggling when it comes to growth (see “Further Reading” below). Feel free to disagree, clarify or add in the comments section below. Also, I give a confession below that I need you to read.

Your Church Cannot Grow Because:

  1. They lack clear vision. Andy Stanley said, “Everybody ends up somewhere in life. A few people end up somewhere on purpose. Those are the ones with vision.” If I were to go up to a member in your church and ask them, “What is the vision of your church?” what do you think the answer would be? Vision doesn’t solve everything but it does give you clarity on where you want to go.
  2. They are stuck in the past. Whether it is antiquated theology or reusing old ways of doing things, churches that remember the “good old days” might not make it to new days. Insert “gospel meetings” right here folks. They are done along with other programs that used to work.
  3. They allow power hungry folks to steer the church. I have never met a growing church who said, “We have this one elder who continually stalls votes or puts out negative vibes.” As long as you have that one person steering the ship because they are power hungry then you will not grow.
  4. Their programs are internally focused. From the youth ministry, to children’s ministry to bible class, to preaching; all seem to gear themselves toward the members. Again, this goes to “lack of vision” but when we start thinking with the members in mind then we might need to evaluate if we have mission in mind.
  5. They do not spend time with the unchurched. I read a book years ago called They Like Jesus but not the Church by Dan Kimball. In that book he made the observation that the longer folks are Christians (in years) the less time they spend with the unchurched. Number four above is part of the reason this is true but it also has to do with our comfort level. It gets messy dealing with the unchurched and it is a whole lot easier avoiding it (we pay the preacher to do it right? SMH).
  6. They do not understand what the gospel really is. I wrote about this a while back but the truth is that our churches have not done a good job at sharing what the gospel really is. We have truncated the gospel making it akin to salvation (i.e., “obeying the gospel”). Worse, I am afraid our theological gymnastic approach to the text (verse hopping and proof texting) has made us more biblically illiterate than ever before. We have zero clue about the story. Another post for another time.
  7. They have no urgency. From visitor follow-up to implementation of new ideas, many churches refuse to act swiftly when it comes to mission. There is more to this but sometimes churches are the slowest to become proactive. We wait and usually are ten years behind the curve on this. I understand change takes time but often it is time that is a luxury.

A Confession…

I have not done well at this over the years and have even contributed to the problem. My heart is for a solution on this instead of whining about problems. I am still learning the missional life Jesus exemplified in the gospels. If I were to open my journal and allow you to read it you would see scores of entries on times where I missed an opportunity or lacked the right courage. I can only get better and do work. I also admit that I have curtailed deeper explanation for my answers above. Meaning, they are too simple and need further explanation. Such is the nature of a blog as one is forced to say what needs to be said and move on. I am sure you understand.

FURTHER READING…

7 Things Lifting Has Taught Me About Life

Since February 2016 I have gone from 271 lbs to plateauing at 235 right now. I lost most of the weight by running but also cutting out a lot of snacking and over eating at meals. I need to lose about 20 more lbs but that will come slowly and methodically. On February 6th of this year I started weightlifting again. I use Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 system that incorporates four primary lifts (overhead press, deadlifts, bench press and squat) along with some assistance lifts to build strength.[1] I also run/do cardio three-four times a week depending on how sore I am or how much time I have.

Right now here are my 1RM (one rep max) for each lift:

Overhead Press: 170

Deadlift: 305

Bench Press: 250

Squat: 325

These are not big numbers but they are very methodical. I wanted to share this with the purpose of sharing what I have learned about life, so far, from lifting. I am no expert at lifting and am a novice at best. Yet…

#1 – Pain is part of the process

This is one of those “make it or break it” factors when it comes to lifting/losing weight. The tendency for our bodies is to run away from pain but what I have had to learn is that pain is just part of the process. I hate it but often I have to push through the pain to accomplish my goals. Life is that way. Pain often has her way with us and our tendency is to run away when perhaps we need to lean into the pain. Check out this quote from Henry Rollins:

“It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.”

#2 – Not planning is planning to fail

I used to just go in there and throw a bunch of weights around and say I was lifting while accomplishing zero results. That’s stupid. Since taking Wendler serious and using Excel to record my numbers I have noticed incremental changes in my strength. Why? I have a plan. I think many of us go through life just like this. We have zero plans and zero goals amounting to…you guessed it…nothing. I am not saying we all have to go Type A and get rigid with everything we do but I strongly believe we must set goals and plan.

#3 – Our biggest obstacle is ourselves.

The biggest obstacle in lifting has to be my own mind. So often I try to talk myself out of a lift because of this pain, or that time conflict, or on and on go the excuses. You get what you give and many times we hear voices telling us to quit. Life is that way isn’t it? The biggest obstacle between us and what matters most is often between our ears.

#4 – There is a right way and a wrong way

Technique is the difference between results and injury. Louie Simmons said, “Don’t have $100.00 shoes and a 10 cent squat.” My body is no longer able to bounce back from injury like it used to (and its getting worse) and so technique is key in my lifts. I am always looking for ways to improve my form or have an edge on trying to get stronger while maintaining proper form. Sometimes we go through life without consulting the experts or at least having a coach. We think we have the right form but so often we injure our mind, body and soul to the dismay of our growth.

#5 – Haters will suck the life out of you.

A weird epiphany came to me a couple months ago. Many people who are over weight, out of shape or lacking results want others to be just like them…miserable.[2] They will say some comments like:

  • “You should eat what you want, live a little.”
  • “Don’t lift a lot of weights as you will be sore when you are older.”
  • “Everybody needs breaks. Take a month off or so.”

I get it. Yet, what I want to reiterate is that part of having a plan incorporates rest, food and life. What it does not include are excuses, lack of focus and laziness. I don’t think I need to make the jump to life here for you. I think you get this. Avoid the haters.

#6 – Make Time

I used to say, “I don’t have time to work out” so that I could have a valid reason not to. The truth is that I had plenty of time but I simply did not manage my time well. Here is a window into a typical day for me…

6:00am           Awake

6:50am           Drop kids off at school

7:15am           Arrive at work

3:15pm          Leave work

3:30pm          Work Out

4:30pm          Arrive at home and begin to cook dinner

5:15pm          Dinner

6:00pm          Ball games

9:00pm          Get home, put kids to bed.

10:00pm        Go to sleep

As you can tell, I have hardly any time to breathe. That’s part of it. Sometimes my workout is two hours and sometimes I go in there for 15 minutes. The important thing is to put time in. Someone wiser than me once said, “You make time for things that are important to you.” That is true in life. Some people care more about money than they do their family or even their own health. Others care more about some perceived status than they do about things that matter most. As a youth minister I have seen it time and time again how families have jacked-up priorities and then tell me, “Robbie, we just do not have time for church stuff.” You know what? They are right. Why? Whether they can admit it is irrelevant because church (for whatever reason) is just not important to them. The same goes with weightlifting.

#7 – Growth is slow and incremental

Every month, as per my plan (see above), I add 5% to my workout in terms of lifts. I had a guy come over to me while I was benching and said, “Why don’t you add more weight sissy?” I laughed it off but I knew I deep inside I could tell him that I have added 15 lbs to my workout over the past two months but he probably couldn’t tell me his growth. Getting strong takes time. There are injuries, setbacks, obstacles and a host of other things hampering growth. That’s why it is slow, methodical and purposed. Many of us want veteran body with rookie effort. Again, life is that way. Growth takes months and years. I am glad I am at a different place now than where I was ten years ago but that took some time.

That’s it. What would you add?

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[1] Specifically I use the “Boring But Big” program in 5-3-1.

[2] I understand some people who are over weight or out of shape cannot help it. I get that and obviously I am not speaking about those folks nor am I claiming some sort of superiority over other folks who do not work out. I am just making some observations.

The Chair – My Easter Sunday Sermon

The Chair – John 20

Preached at Clarksville Highway Church of Christ

April 16, 2017

            Scotty Smalls, Hamilton “Ham” Porter, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, Alan McClennan “Yeah-Yeah”, Michael “Squints” Palledorous, Kenny DeNunez, Timmy and Tommy Timmons are fictional characters from the movie The Sandlot. The Sandlot was released in 1993 and highlights a group of kids who spent the summer playing backyard baseball but also chronicles their mischief typical of kids that age. From Squints kissing Wendy Peffercorn by the pool to the ongoing feud with a massive dog named “The Beast” this movie is filled Americana at its finest. The movie’s main plot is Smalls effort to get a baseball he borrowed from his stepdad that was signed by Babe Ruth that was hit in the Mr. Mertle’s backyard where the beast lies. They have to get it and eventually they do through some divine intervention by Babe Ruth himself. There are a number of lines from the movie that people quote even to this day:

Ham Porter: Hey, Smalls, you wanna s’more?

Smalls: Some more of what?

Ham Porter: No, do you wanna s’more?

Smalls: I haven’t had anything yet, so how can I have some more of nothing?

Ham Porter: You’re killing me Smalls! These are s’more’s stuff! Ok, pay attention. First you take the graham, you stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the ‘mallow. When the ‘mallows flaming… you stick it on the chocolate. Then cover with the other end. Then you scarf. Kind of messy, but good! Try some!

“You play baseball like a girl!”

What I find intriguing about that movie is how that one summer changed the lives of those kids forever. Eventually the kids moved away from the neighborhood and the team was never the same but that one summer shaped the narrative of their lives forever. It changed them. Each character in this story had an integral part and the movie chronicled how that particular summer changed each character forever.

Today is Easter which, if you have participated, is the culmination of the season of Lent that started with Ash Wednesday some 46 days ago. The season is one that historically highlights the need for cleansing from our sin and so disciplines like fasting, confession and repentance are substantial components in this season. If Advent celebrates the birth of Jesus then Lent mourns his death as a result of our sin. All across the globe, most Christians are celebrating today. While Lent does spend time in mourning and repentance, Easter itself is about newness and life. Death, as it were, could not hold Jesus captive. The grave could not contain him. This morning I want to share some stories from John 20 of different characters. Like the Sandlot, the resurrection changed the lives of these characters forever. I want to use their stories as a mirror so that by reading their post-resurrection life we can see ourselves in that story and live in the newness offered to us. I am jumping ahead. First, the text.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

MARY MAGDALENE

After Jesus rose the first one on the scene is a woman by the name of Mary Magdalene. We do not have much to go on about this woman. There are ten references of her in the New Testament and most of those centers around the resurrection. Luke records an incident in Luke 8 where Mary is mentioned in passing. There was a host of women who were cured from evil spirits and infirmities that followed Jesus during his ministry and Mary is listed as one of those but adds a detail: she had been healed from seven demons (Luke 8:1-2). Seven. It is bad enough to have one demon tormenting your spirit with malicious mischief but to have seven of those things inflicting demonic torture must have been too much to bear. Luke does not give us grand details of how it happened so all we have is a simple statement that she was healed.

In our text Mary does two things: 1) She informs Peter the body of Jesus is missing and 2) She is most likely the first person to see Jesus. For Mary, the resurrection solidified her long service to Jesus. We do not have a lot of details about Mary perhaps because she was too busy serving Jesus and ministering to him. Jesus didn’t appear first to his apostles but to a woman. Her job was to share the message of Jesus with the other disciples that he was there. I think many of us think we have to contain some huge mission for us to participate in the kingdom. Her mission during the life of Jesus was to minister to him and when he arose her job was to say, “I have seen the Lord.” Nothing magnificent or book worthy. Just simple acts of obedience.

Many times in my life I struggle at knowing if I am really following the will of God. I have this utopic vision that my walk with God must mirror Paul’s Damascus vision or it has to be grandiose in some divine fashion. Yet, many people who seem closer to God than myself (which is a lot of people) advise that to do the will of God is as simple as doing the next obedient thing. Mary was obedient to Jesus and the resurrection allowed her to flourish in that obedience sharing the message of newness with everyone.

PETER

Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “Only those who are lost will find the promised land.” If that statement is true than there is no better person who bear witness to that truth than the Apostle Peter. One of the worst smells I have discovered in recent years is what I call the post-baseball-softball-soccer-foot smell. The stench is, for all intents and purposes, unbearable. I am not sure what unholy demon camps inside their sock during a ballgame but it is clear that when they take their shoes off evil is on the prowl. Something that is equally as disturbing is that a couple days after their ball game I will open my truck door to get in and to my surprise the smell is still alive and well in my vehicle.

Just two days before the empty tomb the last thing Peter did was deny Jesus despite claiming he would NEVER do so. In Luke’s account he even said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Lk. 22:33). It was also in Luke who recorded Peter’s three denials and then adds this eerie detail: “The Lord turned back and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord…and he went out and wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:61-62). Here Peter is, two days later standing at the tomb of Jesus and, like my kids feet smell, the stench of his sin is still very fresh. Fresh is not the word…the smell of his sin is “putrid.” Perhaps this is why he and another disciple get in a foot race toward the tomb. We are not told the name of this disciple. Some say it is the Apostle John while others think it was Lazarus. It does not matter as to the identity of this disciple more so than the veracity of which they ran. Perhaps Peter was beat because he was not as gifted or maybe he spent too much time eating fish. Who knows?

Of all the disciples I think Peter most wanted the resurrection to happen. There was no closure and, more importantly, no meat to the understanding that Jesus died and rose for him. I think many of us are like Peter. Peter truly was not going to follow Jesus like he should until he fell completely on his back in his sin. The same pain that Peter experienced is exactly the same pain that would propel him to helping lead the early movements of the church. Jonathan Martin, in his book How to Survive a Shipwreck, said this:

If you wish to become someone and something else entirely than the you that was before the storm came . . . you will have to peer into the sea that threatens to swallow you whole, dive into the mouth of it— and trust. You will have to let God happen to you, which requires letting life happen to you, all the way down. You cannot continue to flail your arms, beat against the sea, and damn the waves. You have to let yourself go all the way under— into the depths of God, into the depths of your own soul, into the depths, of life itself.[1]

Many of you have been in this chair and are even in this chair right now. Outwardly you look like you got it together but inwardly you have not identified the shipwreck that is sure to happen. You may not deny Christ overtly but inwardly your denial is as fresh as Peter’s was. The resurrection for Peter was a fresh start on an old problem.

THOMAS

Many of you will not be able to relate with Mary Magdalene and perhaps a few of you can relate to Peter but I think all of us, Christian and non-Christian, can relate to Thomas. When everyone made the claim, “We have seen the Lord!” he had his tight fists and shouted, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Since uttering those words folks have dubbed him, “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t think that is very fair, do you? I am going to make a claim that will probably offend some but will hit home with most: “A faith that is free of doubt isn’t really faith at all.” Greg Boyd in his book Benefit of the Doubt said,

A true and living faith is never a destination; it’s a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt. There’s a kind of doubt that is appropriate as we’re making our way toward a covenantal relationship with Christ, for we need to rationally decide what and who we’re going to base our faith on. Otherwise our faith commitment is determined by nothing more than chance.[2]

Perhaps we could learn from Thomas a bit and realize that having faith in Jesus is something that is difficult. We do not have the luxury of the disciples who could see the risen Lord but that does not lessen the reality that he did rise!

If you are here this morning I totally understand if you don’t buy into this Christian thing. Perhaps you have lost loved ones tragically and somehow hearing about God’s love just does not resonate with your story right now. Or maybe you would like to believe in Jesus but there are so many who don’t act like him. Perhaps they post heated political messages or maybe they cast judgment on folks when it isn’t their place to do so. I totally understand where you are coming from. Yet, at the same time, our doubt and struggle does not weaken our covenantal relationship with him but it actually strengthens it. Think of how confident Thomas was after wrestling with his doubt and then getting assurance from Jesus himself. He wasn’t a “lesser disciple” because of his doubt, rather I would argue he had a deeper commitment post resurrection. Frederick Buechner said, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving!”

YOU

So are you like Mary Magdalene? Perhaps you have faithfully served the Lord for years and your post resurrection task is to simply to follow God’s will by being obedient. Are you like Peter? The freshness of your sin is still on you. Perhaps you need to be washed today of your sin and realize the opportunities for you. Are you like Thomas? You can’t seem to make a commitment to Jesus because there are a list of things you are quite comfortable with and you have more questions than you do answers. My only statement is welcome to the club. Wherever you are these three stories remind us that the resurrection changes us. It should at least. Easter is not about chocolate, pastels, eggs, peeps, Instagram pics, cute outfits, family dinner or lunch. Although those are good things (minus Peeps which are Satanic) Easter is really about the risen Lord who offers us a chair that is at his table. Each one of us are asked to sit in the chair…

” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

Natalie Grant released a song called “Clean” that I want you to meditate on the words. Then after that song we will stand and sing together as an empty tomb gives us an empty chair so that we can sit in it and come to the table. Will you sit in that table?

Grace and peace.

_______________________________

[1] Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is On the Way and Love Is Already Here (p. 23).

[2] Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, (p. 151).

 

Lent Devotional 34 – My “Clingy Sin”

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us… ~ Hebrews 12:1

My wife and I started watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. I had forgotten how powerfully analogous this movie is to the Christian life. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces the dark narrative of the ring and how Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, must take this ring to Mount Doom for its destruction. It becomes clear that the ring is a metaphor of evil and destruction. Everywhere the ring goes, darkness and evil propagate and until it is destroyed, it serves as a constant burden to Frodo, the fellowship and all of “Middle Earth.”

Watching this movie and reading the above text I am reminded of my own struggle. The Hebrew author begs the readers to lay aside a weight and “the” sin that clings so closely (NRSV). I notice a couple things from the text.

First, we are to lay aside. This applies to both the weight and the sin. I take it that weight and sin are simply two words describing the same thing although certainly one could argue that weight is general and sin is specific. What does it mean to “lay aside”? The NIV translates it “throw off everything” while the NLT translates it as “strip off.” And you thought stripping was bad!

Secondly, the sin that clings so closely. I like the way the NRSV translates it in contrast to the NIV which says the sin that so easily entangles. The sin that clings so tightly seems, at least to me, to make more sense. Also important to the discussion is the use of the definite article (“the”) denoting a specific sin. It might even be appropriate to translate it, “the clingy sin.”

So what?

This is, by far, the most difficult Lent I have endured in recent years. I am not specifically fasting from something and this has brought to light sin that I struggle with. My sin is a lot like Frodo’s ring in that wherever I go or whatever I do, the sin is there. I am reminded of its presence, I am aware of its potency and I am paralyzed by its power. My “clingy sin” is an ever-present reality of my separation from God and there are moments that are often too difficult to bear.

I could resort to pithy statements sure to give me a reprieve from my battle but in the end I find many of those “Christiany” statements to be, at best, banal. You know the statements don’t you? I have even preached a few of them…

  • “Give it to Jesus.”
  • “Pray about it.”
  • “Let go and let God.”
  • “God is in control.”
  • “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle.”

With this clingy sin I have tried all of those and I wish I could say they work but many of them don’t. No matter how much I listen to “positive encouraging music” some days I just cannot handle my sin. In the raw and exposed moments of my sin I realize that my wrestling and struggle become the action of “laying aside” or, as the NLT puts it, “throwing off” in Hebrews 12:1. One day, like Frodo, I will fully realize Jesus cast my sin into darkness on Good Friday but it seems helpful to remind myself of where I have been so that I know where I am going (or where He takes me…trite saying number 6).

You want to know where I find true comfort?

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses…”

Right there in the middle of an exposition on getting-it-togetherness the author shares the concept of community. However one defines who the witnesses are, I think we can all agree to the hard fact that we screw up. The author had his (or her?) own “clingy sin” in mind when he wrote those words. When a preacher is sharing this verse he or she has a “clingy sin” in mind. We all do. When a Christian claims they don’t struggle with a sin then I seriously wonder if they are doing the Christian thing right.

I find great solace in looking around and realizing there are others who are struggling and placing their burdens, too numerous to count, in the hands of an Almighty God trusting that he is true to his word and will forgive them.

You know what?

I believe that.

I will close by finishing the context of Hebrews 12:1.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Don’t grow weary or lose heart friend.

We’re in this together.

Sunday’s comin…

Lent Devotional 33 – Angry Jesus?

“Then they came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the temple area and began to drive out those who were selling and buying in the temple courts. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. Then he began to teach them and said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have turned it into a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:15-17)

This marks the beginning of Holy Week as many Christians move toward the death of Jesus (Good Friday) and his resurrection (Easter). Historically on Monday Jesus had this memorable incident where he drives out (John 2) folks who are making a sacred place sacrilegious. This is a prophetic fulfillment (?) to Jeremiah 7 where the same thing happened amidst the people of Israel. I have always looked at this story with a bit of confusion. Was Jesus losing it amid the pressure of knowing he was about to die? Was Jesus so frustrated with people that he simply let his anger get the best of him?

Looking at the text over and over I see things differently now. I used to think anger did not have a place in a Christian’s life yet Paul even said, “in your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). The term “righteous indignation” may have some weight here as Jesus sifts through the hypocrisy and blatant disregard for God’s law on the part of those “selling and buying.” Here is what I see from Jesus’ anger…

Jesus had a laser sharp focus for his mission. Earlier he told his disciples to “seek first the kingdom” and it is clear that is what he intends on doing (Lk. 19:10) until his mission is over. Later on this week Jesus is going to witness all sorts of derailments from his mission from his disciples and we will again see the humanity of Jesus in those intimate moments. What we will also see is that with each pressing moment where the arrows of the enemy are firing at will, Jesus responds perfectly in cohesion with the Father’s will.

Jesus addressed the issue. One of my pet peeves is when people passive aggressively address an issue. Social media has unfortunately become a feeding ground for the passive aggressive. We don’t have to address the issue if we put it on our Facebook wall right? Jesus would have none of this. He saw their struggles for what they were and immediately sought to curtail their efforts.

Jesus became angry for the right reasons but did not let that anger consume him. He addressed the issue, and moved on but he did this because of the sharp contrast of their actions in regards to the will of God. Nothing more and nothing less.

Lent Devotional 32 – A Resurrection that Christian Companies Can’t Profit From

“…’Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!'” – Acts 20:10

I got an email from a Christian company that is knee deep in its campaign to help churches prepare for its ever-important Easter service. This company promised to fulfill the church’s mission by providing the best literature, worship backgrounds, compelling banners, emotional vignettes and everything else to make the Easter service memorable. All of this is available, of course, for a nominal fee. Christian companies are not the only ones who are trying to profit from the season as any patron who walks into Walmart will notice, front and center, the aisles of candy, Easter eggs, baskets, outfits and anything accented in a pastel color for the would-be customer to purchase.

Make no mistake folks. Easter sells.

I wonder what Jesus thinks about all of this right now. The man endured inexplicable physical torture, false accusations, abandonment from his closest friends, separation from his father, all for many people who take his name in vain, live selfishly and only think of him when they are in trouble or a couple times a week.

Look, I am not opposed to companies who make a profit and I totally understand what they are trying to do. Yet, sometimes we (me included) divorce ourselves from the mission of Easter and are caught up in the consumerism of our society. We are sure to get our Instagram pic of our Easter outfits all the while our hearts are still dressed in our own selfishness.

What the companies cannot sell and what the stores cannot advertise is the resurrection that can happen in your life.

If Lent speaks anything to this world, it is a stiff-arm to the rapacious narrative of “me” so pervasive among us.

In Acts 20 a sleepy Eutychus has grown tired from Paul’s message. The NIV says Paul talked “on and on” (v. 9). Soon Eutychus fell asleep and the mishap caused him to fall out of the window and to his death.

We are a bit like Eutychus don’t you think? We are tired from hearing the resurrection every year (every Sunday…) and though we are alive many of us have fallen asleep.

Paul went down to Eutychus and the people were understandably concerned. I imagine the scene unfolding dramatically. Everything is normal until this man falls out of window and then there are screams from people. The sound of his body hitting the earth must have been excruciating to hear. Paul, in a very calm manner, says these words: “…Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!'” (Acts 20:10). It seems to be a weird story from outside looking in. Yet, in this Lenten season this story makes perfect sense to me.

We all have fallen asleep before but each of us have been revived. The word of God might be whispering to you right now, “He’s/She’s alive!” That is the encouragement you may very well need at this time. It is easy to desensitize ourselves from our mission when there is so much consumerism around us. But isn’t Easter still important? Isn’t resurrection still fundamental?

I think so.

Come alive friend.

Wake up.

May you come alive as we crawl our way to the cross.

Lent Devotional 31 – Turn Around

“And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. ~ Ezekiel 33:14-16

 

I was in the middle of 135 acres of forest, on a silent personal retreat and I was lost physically and spiritually. In the fall of 2016 I went to Trappist, Kentucky (near New Haven) to the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery to devote myself to prayer and meditation for the week. I chose this particular place because it was the home of a spiritual mentor of mine (who died before I was born) by the name of Thomas Merton. It was a wonderful time roaming the same halls Merton and so many other monks roamed and walking the trails they undoubtedly traversed while deep in prayer. Speaking of trails. The attending monk gave me a trail map and the following day I felt confident in hiking and so I found my way to the edge of the property on a knob overlooking the Kentucky landscape. As I went to the bottom of the knob the trail went in three directions but the map only indicated two. I took the wrong one and in the process became completely lost. I remember thinking to myself: “I am struggling spiritually and now I am struggling physically.” Long story short, I turned back and went a different direction and found some teenagers mudding in a jeep who pointed me in the right direction.

“Turn away from their sin.” Ezekiel’s language is emphatically clear yet innately difficult. The simple solution to their generation long dilemma is an about-face lifestyle change. Think about how long the people have tried to do things their own way assuming that their religious practices and ways of life were the answer. God doesn’t say, “I don’t want any part of you. If you commit to change, I don’t care. Me and you? We’re done!” No. Our God looks at our plight and says, “All you have to do is let me in and give up the race. Trust that I will provide for you and listen to my words and obey my commands.” So simple yet so profound. You and I have work to do don’t we? May you turn about and finally repent from your egotistical disposition and find the wherewithal to let God in.

Prayer: Infinite Father where do we start? We know where to go but are fearful of what to do. If we take the first step will you push us? If we make the first climb will you pull us up? Amen.

Meditation Questions:

  1. What spoke to you from today’s devotional and why? Pay particular attention to certain words or phrases that seem to repeat themselves in your mind.
  2. What have you not turned from in your spiritual walk with God?

Lent Devotional 30 – My Sin Record

“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” ~ Psalm 130:3-4

One Sunday I was talking about sin with the congregation and I made the statement: “What if we had a PowerPoint of all the sins you committed and threw them on the screen for all to see? What would that look like?” To this day I am not sure why I would say something like that. My thoughts, I think, surrounded the idea that we were keeping things from the Lord and that one cannot hide from God in the first place and so we should repent from undisclosed sin. People came up to me after the lesson and gave me the usual, “That’s what we needed to hear,” and, “Wow you really stepped on my toes!” I doubt that statements in that regard make much of a difference in our discipleship with the father. Most of them time they are used as a rhetorical scheme to make people wallow in their guilt.

The psalmist does not use rhetoric to make some huge theological point. He understands the nature of what he has done against God. There is no hiding the long list of his sins. Like a scar, the notebook of sins goes with him. That’s why reminding people of their guilt rarely works. They already know it. Yet the “AHA!” moment comes when the psalmist realizes his fatalistic attitude meets the life-giving force known as God. If a relationship with God were contingent on our record of wrongdoing then the logical conclusion is that none of us can pass the test. But…a word my spiritual inconsistent tendencies has grown to love…with God there is forgiveness. Whoa! In a neck breaking, “Are you kidding me?” sort of way we come to this text befuddled. Bamboozled if you will. The creator of all things who gave us life and freedom which we completely abuse for our own misuse is willing to let that go because he wants our worship…i.e., glory. I don’t know about you but I want to bask in that bit of sunlight this morning. Just let that sit on your heart right now and feel the ramifications of that. May you rest not in the record of your unrighteousness but in the realization of God’s forgiveness.

Prayer: Help me to acknowledge your forgiveness and not the guilt of my past. It’s so hard Lord. Amen.

Meditation Questions:

  1. Why do we spend so much time talking about guilt?
  2. What does it mean to rest in God’s forgiveness to you?