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BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Shaming the World
May 31, 2020

The daily news weighs heavy on us all. Not only have school shootings become common, but racism is rampant and frequently excused. Whether it is a pick-up truck slowing down in a quiet neighborhood or the police brandishing their badges and personal assumptions, we have chosen hatred and violence over everything else. Violence never has justification. There is no call for it, no validity, no justice regardless of misdemeanor or crime, guilt or innocence, time of day, ethnicity, legal status, or color of skin.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” We can never achieve peace and reconciliation by way of threats, injustice, and oppression. It is not delivered through weapons of self-defense, nor can it be legitimately sanctioned through the state or municipalities. If we refuse to acknowledge our role in these systemic problems, the violence will always prevail. If we close our ears when our black neighbors are angry, and refuse them a voice, then we cultivate an oppressive society that will only culminate in more violence.

George Floyd’s guilt or innocence is immaterial to whether or not you believe his death to be murder and a violation of human dignity. This has nothing to do with politics. It mocks the core of our Christian belief and the gospel of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) God so loved George Floyd.

Besides accomplishing our forgiveness, Christ’s death -his pure, sinless death- made a mockery of illegitimate power and degrading oppression. By dying at the hands of those who wielded unspeakable power, Jesus died speaking a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:24) Jesus’ death was for all so that violence and abuse and death itself would be eradicated. We look around and may despair thinking he failed, and yet we know that this is not true. By faith, we know life and love are for all of us, even though we cannot yet see or barely believe it. We know this is so, for “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8) We are those sinners for whom Christ was crucified.

We, at North Central Church of Christ, do not pretend to know George Floyd. We do not need, however, to attest to his character. His family and friends can do that. God knows the hearts of  George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Botham Jean and every man, woman and child who deserve better because they inherently display in their being the image of God. At North Central Church, we vary in our political stances and in the degrees of our political involvement. However, this is not politics. We are not fighting the police, yet we vehemently condemn any police action that rejects God as our common Creator. We condone no brutality of any kind whatsoever. May God and our fellow humanity forgive us for phrases like “an unarmed black man.” Forgive us for hearing this as a descriptor, and not anything laden with bias and prejudice. Our battle is with our own hearts. Our fight is to eradicate hate, but also indifference, suspicion and fear. The brutal death of Jesus Christ shames the world, particularly those who wield violent power. His resurrection transforms it.

Let’s join in.

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Work
May 24, 2020

Our lives may look and feel different than they did a few months ago. Some of us may be dealing with the extra stress due to family logistics, elder care or economic distress. We may be worried about how to deliver a crucial presentation via zoom with the entire family now at home, or whether that lab class will be available again before graduation, or even if we will have a job to return to after this pandemic has passed.

This has me contemplating work - its value, variety and variability. Scripture has much to say about work - both our own work and God’s. At this time, when we may be questioning our value or wonder how God is using our work for his kingdom, it might help us to remember important words from others, beginning with...well, the beginning.

When God placed Adam and Eve in the garden, he blessed them with the work of cultivation. They were given a task: to care for newly-spoken grass and trees, vegetables and fruit, foxes and goats, They were partners with the Creator. The work was productive and creative; it was holy. It was something they participated in with God and for God.

Our brother Scott Morris has frequently reminded us that regardless of our workplace, or who our employer is, we work full of integrity because we are servants of the Lord. Ultimately, we work for God.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” (Colossians 3:23)

Warehouses, home offices, construction sites, schools, and retail businesses all fall under God’s domain. Although his examples may be a little antiquated, English poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it well:

“To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should.”

Whether or not you see your own work as “essential,” whether or not you feel the lack of work, or the over abundance of it at this time during the pandemic, we trust God sees all our efforts for him. We remember Brother Lawrence (1614-1691) who washed dishes and did “everything even the smallest things for the love of God.” (The Practice of the Presence of God)

Currently, our challenge is to refuse to believe the lie that our work is without purpose. Always, our challenge is to avoid the temptation to think our work is inferior to others’, but instead to be thankful all work is being accomplished in Christ’s kingdom. Christ grows us, even sanctifies us, through our work for him. Our job may seem menial or irrelevant to holy purposes, especially right now. Nevertheless, the balance of work and rest is a gift from God. We work as he calls us and we sabbath as he provides. We are not valued or justified by our efforts, but he perfects us in times of difficulty. He strengthens us through our work.

In God’s kingdom children have work; the elderly labor. Is this partially what Eugene Peterson means by”vocational holiness?” Each has a task contributing to the whole. And now, at a time when it seems our work is tenuous, we hold up the psalmist’s prayer.

“May the favor of the Lord

our God rest on us;

 Establish the work of our hands 

for us - 

Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

(Psalm 90:17)

As we sit in our homes and as our productivity wanes, our liturgy looks different. We may struggle with unwanted Sabbath. We may be discouraged by the poverty and sickness and death and discord; we may be tempted to think prayer is a meager activity, the only thing left to us as a final resort. Let us not be tempted to denigrate this work of God. Now is the time to offer prayer. For ourselves. For one another. For our neighbors. For the sick, for those caring for the elderly. For the fearful. For the hurting. For the world.

For prayer is our work.

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Seasoned with Salt
May 17, 2020

Earlier this year, I facilitated a conversation class on Sunday mornings entitled ”Seasoned with Salt,” in which we discussed both foundational and transformational teachings of our faith. We talked about things like the significance of the Trinity, and this triune God being mutually present and in constant conversation.  We were ready to move on to discussions of how Jesus spoke with specific people, particularly with those with whom he disagreed. Then, we were interrupted by COVID-19. I hope, however, our conversations have not been put on hold. In fact, I am almost certain God is providing us with meaningful opportunities to talk among ourselves and with others in our community. I pray we continue to do so with the gentleness, grace, and friendship of Jesus Christ. 

The title of the class was, of course,  pulled from Paul’s epistle to the church in Colossae. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you many know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) Note this verse emphasizes not what to say to people, but how. Our manner of speech, our tone, our intentions, our compassion and desire for mutual flourishing should be evident in every conversation.

Does that sound peculiar? We are, after all, called to be a peculiar people ( 1 Peter 2:9, KJV) We belong to God, so even our speech provides an alternative to the way the rest of the world interacts. When we season our conversation with salt, might we not reveal to others the Christ-in-us in a more beautiful way?

Often I step lightly over metaphors in Scripture simply because I have heard them so often. They seem cliche not because of their triteness, but due to my lack of attentiveness. I have heard explanations of salt being a flavor enhancer, a preservative, and a purifier. I have been reminded of how Romans would pay salaries in salt because of its usefulness and value. Thus, the etymology of the term salary, and our expression: “She is worth her weight in salt.” But Scripture itself can also help us understand how metaphors are meant to be used. Salt was an integral part of sacrifices in the Levitical priesthood.

“Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.” (Leviticus 2:13)

This is a strange expression for us who are far removed from sacrifices on altars. Covenant denotes an agreement, a promise, a partnership, the hope of friendship with God. If our lives are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), then our speech is to be sprinkled with the purifying, life-giving condiment, so that Christ might be completely Lord in all aspects of our lives. Our speech reflects the intonations and accent of Jesus. His plosives and dentals are ours; his grammar rules our speech. Our conversation is not seasoned with American ideology, racial generalizations, economic ideals, or moral platitudes, but with the rich, life-giving graciousness of the God who came to be with us. Our words, well-seasoned, protect and build up our communities and one another.

Is a sister struggling with depression? Do you know a brother who has become entangled in old sins? Is your neighbor burdened with anxiety over this virus, or perhaps they are burdening you with their unsolicited opinions? How do we respond?

Seeing ourselves primarily through our identity in Christ allows us to lay aside secondary issues which may precipitate arguments and compromise our unity in Christ, or in our shared humanity. If we belong to Jesus, we will follow him and not a morality or political theory, or our private opinion. Instead, we will speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and know how to handle differences of opinion and differing worldviews. Our conversations will be guided by the Holy Spirit and by his love for the people in front of us, so that we will not desire to engage in culture wars or petty squabbles. Instead, we will eagerly seek the well being of even those least like us.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Opening and Closing Doors
May 10, 2020

When we pray to God for guidance, we should not be surprised when he answers that prayer.  In other words, we should look expectantly for his guidance.  In addition to the general guidance given in his word, we might do well to expect that he would speak to us through our circumstances.  These circumstances will not always be pleasant.  It would be great if God would guide us by making obvious open doors with well-manicured sidewalks leading to them.  This is rare.  More commonly, we do not see open doors, but instead, we hear doors slamming behind us.  When that happens, it is natural to be upset, especially if the door closes on something we loved – something we did not want to leave behind.  When the doors close, remember, do not rage against a closed door.  Closed doors give as much guidance, if not more, than open doors.  It is ill-advised to let disappointment cloud our eyes or slow our steps.  Accept God's leading.

All we need to do when confronted with clearly open doors or firmly closed ones is simply to accept them.  If God tells us we must leave Ur in plain and easily understood words, the dilemma is obedience, not interpretation.  No, the more difficult problem is when we experience closing doors or doors merely cracked open.  Should we stick a foot in the closing door?  Or should we take a crowbar to one only partially open?  Here is the call for patience.  The closing door may open again.  Wait for it.  The open door may close as we approach it.  Wait for it.  Again, we accept God's lead, and we trust him to guide us.  In the meantime, we learn patience.

We will learn this lesson over and over.  God will be patient with us while we learn to be patient with him.  May God guide each of us into his perfect will.

 

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Who is My Redeemer? Who is My Foe?
Apr 26, 2020

"I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,  My God, my rock in whom I take refuge,  My shield, and the horn of my salvation,  My stronghold.  I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,  I am saved from my enemies."
Psalm 18:1-3

If you feel pursued today by some relentless and ruthless doom, do not lose heart. Be courageous and faithful to your God. He has not forgotten you or abandoned you to the clutches of the devil. That is who seeks to devour you and drag you down with him, to Sheol. It may be the flu or cancer, or a heart attack brought on by the stress of this present pandemonium. It may be that you are in extreme financial distress and worried about your family or business obligations. Satan’s real purpose is to make you abandon your faith in God.

This is the perfect time for Satan to pounce. People are depressed and afraid. They are suspicious and easily convinced that their problems are somebody else’s fault, but we know that it is the devil who sets the traps for us. People like to think someone or something will rescue them. Satan scents our desperation and fear. He knows our weaknesses and preys on them with ferocious schemes. He sets his pack on our trail and commands that we be broken and dismayed, and devoured.

O my God, let me not be drawn into the schemes of Satan. Let me neither become his victim nor his instrument. Let me never mislead my friends willingly or not. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

I do not mean to be anyone’s enemy, but I know that I could be deceived and misled. It has happened to me before. And even though I love you, I could say or do something that served Satan’s will, not God’s.

Reflection on God’s word and His will for my life is a critical need, and not only when times are hard. He speaks if I’m listening. He speaks if I open His book. He speaks if I open my heart to Him in prayer. He speaks if I recall a single memory verse, or even a phrase of His word at an appropriate moment. Sometimes He speaks to me best in the powerful songs of the saints.

Hard times are now upon us all. We are living in constraints that are uncomfortable. We can’t get out of town. We can’t go out to eat. We’re supposed to wear masks if we go to the store. We can’t “go to church” as we may have done all our lives. There’s no hand-shaking, back-patting, holy-hugging or kissing. And it may get much worse before it gets better.

Remember, my friends, our redeemer is not a politician or a doctor. He’s no judge or general. Our savior is God, Almighty. It is He who raises us up and rescues us from our despair. No matter what happens, let us love Him, for He is worthy! Let us thank Him, for He is merciful! Let us praise Him, for He is glorious!

 

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