Why Does God Allow Suffering?

A Word of Introduction

Question2I’m going to explore a theme in this space this month, the theme of “Faith Questions.” This is an intentional title. As people of faith, we will always have a faith question (or two!) we would like to run past God over a cup of coffee or a glass of something stronger.

I will look at three questions this month:

  • This week: Why does God allow suffering?
  • Next week: How do we know God answers our prayers?
  • Finally: Is Jesus really the only way to Heaven?

The series’ title reminds me of an important value for us as Lutheran Christians: a genuine faith questions. We are not robots, expected to accept our faith or our circumstances blindly, unhesitatingly. It’s perfectly acceptable to question, to push for greater clarity or deeper understanding.

Our model for this is Jesus’ encounter with Thomas the week after Easter (John 20.26-29). On Easter evening, the disciples encountered the risen Jesus, who showed them his hands and broke bread with them and encouraged them that the witness of the women from earlier in the day was not a hoax or a wild rumor, but the truth. Jesus had been resurrected and was now alive! Unfortunately, though, one disciple – Thomas – hadn’t been there for that experience, and when the other disciples tried to tell him about it, he didn’t believe them. Rather, Thomas questioned, and so the next Sunday Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other 10 disciples to show that he had in fact been raised from the dead. Thomas questioned (and the others, too), and Jesus responded with what they needed for a reassured, deeper faith.

One other introductory thought about how we Lutheran Christians understand and use Scripture. Not going to cherry-pick scripture passages to respond to these questions. You know what that can look like. You’ve probably heard the story about the man who wanted to do God’s will, who decided to go to the Bible to seek God’s wisdom. He closed eyes and opened the Bible and read the first verse that he saw: So Judas went out and hung himself. Well, that didn’t sound so good, so he closed the Bible and then opened it to another spot and read: What you are about to do, go and do quickly.

Ah . . . not so helpful, is it?!

Our Lutheran understanding of Scripture is that Scripture interprets Scripture. That is to say, we will wrestle  with the entirety of the Bible’s message, taking the passages we explore in their context  and use other passages as appropriate to illuminate the ones we are exploring. As needed, we will give preference  to teachings from the NT on our topics as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus may transform or even supersede a teaching from the OT.

With all that by way of introduction, on to this week’s faith question: Why does God allow suffering?

The Question of Faith!

Does the name George Barna ring a bell? He does for the Christian community what George Gallup does for the business and political world. Many years ago Mr. Barna took a national scientific poll, in which he asked people this question:

If you could ask God any one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?

Question-About-Suffering1What do you suppose was the number one response?

“Why does God allow suffering?”

And in the mountain of data he collected, there was an interesting statistical quirk. It showed that married people were much more likely to want to know why there is so much suffering.I don’t know why – that’s just what the statistics show!

But this isn’t simply an intellectual question, is it? I suspect you’ve asked the same question at some point in your faith journey.

I know I have.

Watching a loved one wrestle with a chronic, debilitating health condition can trigger such questioning.

Seeing the news reports of mudslides, tornados, floods, and other so-called “acts of God” can trigger such questioning.

Seeing news reports of girls kidnapped in Nigeria and civil war in Iraq and Syria and the Sudan and another school shooting almost every week can trigger such questioning.

After all, we’ve been taught since Sunday School that God is all-powerful (“omnipotent”), and that God’s desire for us is for good and not evil. So, then, why does God allow suffering to happen in our lives and in the world around us?

And what about the related questions that spring from this question like weeds sprouting in my lawn, questions like:

  • If God isn’t to blame for what happens, who is?
  • Do we deserve what happens to us?
  • Is God just?
  • Is God really sovereign over what happens in the world?

What comfort, what hope can we find in Scripture to help us make sense of this?

Suffering a Consequence of Human Sin

Why does God allow suffering? God created the world in all perfection, without suffering. But our human sin introduced a new element into the mix. Because of the cosmic dimensions of sin, the nature of human life is that it contains suffering; there’s no way around that. Jesus made that clear to his disciples the night before his arrest:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33, TNIV)

So did Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians:

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. (4:8–10, NLT)

Sometimes, there is a direct connection between what we do and what happens to us as a result. That’s how God’s established the relationship with Israel:

I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.  I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected — even children in the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:7, NLT)

So when Israel defaulted in her relationship with God by worshiping other gods, God punished them by allowing the surrounding countries to beat them up and cart them off into exile. We can accept the idea of suffering for something we’ve done. In our own lives, smoke 2 packs a day for 40 years, it’s no surprise when you develop lung issues like COPD or cancer. We may not like suffering for the consequences of our actions, but at least we can understand the quid pro quo in effect.

Other times, though, we may not be able to connect our every specific experience of suffering back to some particular sin that we committed. And that’s often where making sense of suffering gets more tricky.

Jesus teaching in John 9; the blindness not attributed to blind man’s actions  or those of his parents. It happened so that God’s power could be revealed in the world. Joseph and his brothers – they meant  Joseph’s being sold into slavery as something bad;  God turned it around and used it for good – delivering the Egyptians and Israelites from famine.

Same principle Paul expresses in Romans 8:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. Romans 8:28 (NLT)

I don’t believe God sits around thinking up ways to zap us with suffering. But one way to understand our suffering is to recognize that God can use it and our faithful response to it as a witness for others.

Another approach: in Luke 13 Jesus teaches the disciples about suffering by highlighting two catastrophes that happened: Pilate murdering some Galileans as they offered sacrifices in the temple, and the death of 18 people when a tower fell on them. Were these people worse sinners than others, that God was somehow punishing them more severely? No, Jesus told them. These tragedies simply give us pause to be sure of our relationship of our souls.

One way to answer the question, Why does God allow suffering? is to attribute it directly or indirectly to the brokenness of creation because of the effect of human sin in the world.

Suffering a Consequence of God’s Self-limiting

Scripture and the complexity of creation suggest another answer. To say that God “allows” suffering implies there is a limit to God’s power. By it’s very nature, God created a world that has order to it. It’s a complex world of  complicated balances and interconnections. Once the world was made, God limited himself in how he would interact within it. Cause and effect relationships are in effect that cannot be removed or suspended without creating utter chaos in the world. Certainly, there have been times when God has intruded on this created order: for example, the healings Jesus performed during his ministry, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But for every illness Jesus healed, many more were not. For every person resuscitated, many more were not, and, except for Jesus, they all died.

In addition, God created us with the freedom to trust or to rebel. Conceivably God could have created us with no possibility of rebellion; that we would always know God’s will and never fail to follow it. How much simpler life would have been for God if this had been the case! But then God’s greatest desire to have us love God freely wouldn’t be possible in this situation, would it? A coerced love is really no love at all. As long as the world remains a place in which you and I have the freedom to act in defiance of God, it will be a world in which God will limit himself from exerting complete control over everything that happens. Does God know what will happen in each situation? Absolutely! Can God use our actions so that good can come from them? Absolutely!

Is There Any Hope?

Ultimately, there comes a point at which we cannot make sense of everything that happens to us. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (55:8–9, NLT)

The apostle Paul puts it this way in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13.12, ESV)

Honest faith questions; it pushes for clarity and understanding. But it also recognizes that there will be times when we cannot understand fully everything that happens to us. Life and faith are filled with an element of mystery. Besides casting blame for our suffering,  perhaps our most pressing need is to believe  we can have hope in the midst of our circumstances. Though we may not be able to understand everything behind what we’re going through, what we can know provides assurance and hope for our faith journey.

Our hope comes from who God is. Lasting, sustaining hope doesn’t just come from inside of us, but from outside of ourselves. Hope doesn’t begin with what we feel or think. Hope comes from who God is. Ours is a God who loves us unconditionally, who wants only what’s best for us, and who does whatever is necessary to have a relationship with us.

We see this as we look at the story of God revealed in the entire story arc of the Bible. God establishes a relationship with humans at creation. When Adam and Eve blow it (Gen 3), God reaches out to maintain the relationship. When humanity continues to mess this up (Gen 4-5), God chooses Noah and his family to reestablish creation and a renewed relationship with humans. When humans mess things up again by trying to become like God and storm heaven (Gen 11), God chooses Sarah and Abraham as a means of continuing the relationship. Whether it’s with the judges, the kings, the prophets after them, or the story of Jesus and the early Church, God continues to reach out to us because God wants to have a relationship with us, and in his son Jesus, shows the lengths to which he will go so that we can have it. Our hope comes from God’s promises to us.

Lasting, sustaining hope doesn’t just come from us, or from what we feel or think. Hope comes from what God has promised to do. As Sarah and Abraham waited and hoped for a child, their own feelings of doubt and uncertainty led them to lose hope and take matters into their own hands. Time and time again, they made choices that showed how little hope they were able to manufacture for themselves. In the end, it was God’s repeated promises to provide a child and a land that sustained Abraham and Sarah for nearly 30 years until Isaac was born.

What has God promised to do for us? God has saved us from our sins. God has promised to be with us always, no matter what. (Mt. 1.23; 28.20) God has promised that nothing will ever happen to us that will ever separate us from God’s love. (Rom 8.31-39) God has promised to bear us up with his strength (Is 40.28-31) And God has promised that he will have the final word, that life will come from death, that suffering is not the last word. Our hope is sustained through the faith community.

Finally, this sustaining hope doesn’t last because of our own smarts or strengths or abilities. It is sustained best through the faithful, gathered together and supporting each other when life gets tough. When you and I suffer, we naturally hope for a shoulder to cry on, someone to understand, someone to weep with us. This may sound like a modest hope, but it’s a vitally important one. It’s not always easy to find, either.

When we are going through difficult times, we often feel very alone.Perhaps our distress has made others uncomfortable, and so it’s hard to find a sympathetic ear. Perhaps, in our distress, we have said or done things which our friends have trouble accepting. It’s not easy to be a comforter to someone who is suffering. And yet, at Trinity we have a powerful ministry to those who suffer.

Paul speaks of this in his second letter to the Corinthians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (1:3–4, ESV)

Each of us has some woundedness that we can share. As we come together and share our story, we can comfort others with the comfort God has already given us. I thank God how we are a place of mutual consolation. Whether it’s through the encouragement you share on Tuesdays as you quilt, or during the Sunday morning adult class, or in the innumerable phone calls and cards that go out amongst yourselves each year, by demonstrating that we care and support one another, we also embody the hope that God, too, hears and understands.

A lifeguard was once asked: “How can you tell when anyone is in need of help when there are thousands of swimmers making so much noise?” The guard answered:  “No matter how great the noise and confusion, there has never been a single time when I could not distinguish the cry of distress above them all. I can always tell it.” And that is exactly like God. In the midst of the noise and confusion in our lives God never fails to hear the soul that cries out to him for help amid the breakers and storms of life.

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Be Holy! Be Perfect!

ImageAs I was growing up, my mother had a number of pithy parental pronouncements that have stuck with me as an adult and as a parent. For instance, even today watching a freight train go by causes me to hear my mother’s voice in my head: “Always wave at the world; sometimes it will wave back.” She was referring to our habit of waving to the engineer on the train, but as was true of some of her sayings, it could be understood at a deeper level, too. We can’t control other people’s actions; all we can do is do what we should. Or when one of my daughters complains about some horrendous parenting mistake I’ve made by daring to impose a consequence on her actions, my mother’s voice sounds out: “Oh, well, that’ll be something to tell your therapist.”

Do you ever hear those kind of parental pronouncements in your own mind?

The Bible is filled with many such familiar pronouncements, but our readings today hit us upside the head with two doosies. In our first reading from Leviticus, God said to the Israelites,

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (19.2)

And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount when he said,

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5.48)

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve often taken these statements in one of two ways:

We’ve heard Jesus’ commands so often that they hardly register. “Turn the other cheek.” Yeah – yawn – sure. “Love your enemies.” Sounds nice – why not? Be holy, be perfect. Sounds like a good idea. And out of our trained indifference we rarely think deeply about actually trying to follow them. OR

Whoa, totally unrealistic . . . why even bother? “Turn the other cheek.” Are you kidding?! And get treated like a doormat? No thanks! “Love you enemies.” You can’t be serious! “Be perfect”?!? Really? Who can do that . . . sounds totally unrealistic; sheer folly, idealistic sentiments that would be crazy to apply in the “real” world.

But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding, and he is dead serious about these commands. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. Which is why we need to take them seriously.

So perhaps, there’s a third response to these admonishments besides our bored indifference or our dismissive ignoring of them as unrealistic. Perhaps we can see them as something worth doing, realizing that we can’t fulfill this divine standard. Only Jesus will – it’s why he came, after all. This was Jesus’ point to his disciples early in the Sermon on the Mount:

I haven’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (Mt 5.17) 

Our living out this standard, however, imperfectly, is not our way of earning God’s love or of keeping the commandments. Rather, it’s our way of demonstrating our faith, of becoming God’s instruments of redemption and reconciliation in the world (2 Cor 5.17ff), and the way in which God shapes us more and more into the image of Christ (“sanctification”).

It might help to reframe how we hear what Jesus says. Not a command “Be holy, be perfect” but rather an invitation and a description of what will be: “You will be holy . . . you will be perfect.” The verb tenses in both the OT and Gospel reading are future (even though NRSV doesn’t translate it that way – shame on them!). The Bible is being descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s painting a picture of what will be as God works in us, maturing our faith, not making a demand of how things must be based on our actions alone. Do you sense the difference?

This reframing is helped by our understanding the meaning of “holy” and “perfect” in their Biblical contexts:

Holy in OT – heb. “qadosh,” meaning set apart; ordinary objects consecrated for extraordinary use. In the OT, all holiness is derivative – it comes from God’s holiness, God’s character, not our own.

Perfect in NT – gk. “teleios,” meaning something that is complete or mature, that has reached its goal or fulfilled its purpose. An almond tree is “perfect” in this sense when it is bearing fruit. You and I are perfect when we are living out our faith by doing what God has wired us to do. Perfect, then, isn’t a description of some sinless, pure, unblemished state we are to reach.

Can we hear in Scripture’s words “You will be holy” “You will be perfect” an invitation to be the people of God he called us to be? To be the community of faith called the church that we are called to be? That God established on that first Pentecost day?

Eugene Peterson’s translation of the gospel reading captures this spirit of “being perfect” well:

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. (5.48) 

Does that let us off the hook with all the other teachings from the Sermon on the Mount we’ve heard these past few weeks? Certainly not. But it does help us get to the root of the issue. We can only do these other things — repaying evil with good, forgiving and praying for those who harm us — to the degree that we can live into our God-given identity as blessed and beloved children. We can’t give what we don’t have, and so only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others.

Which is why it matters who’s saying these things in the first place. It’s Jesus — Jesus, the one who not only talked the talk of love but walked the walk, treading steadfastly to Jerusalem, enduring the shame and humiliation of the cross, embracing death itself…all so that we might know, experience, and trust just how much God loves us and thereby — and only thereby! — have abundant life. This Jesus not only invites us to live as we are, he also understands, understands just how hard it is to live this way; to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to embrace rather than protect, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than wound, especially when we ourselves walk so much of our lives wounded and hurt.

If Jesus is inviting us to live as we are, beloved children of God; to love as we’ve been loved; to forgive as we’ve been forgiven – and that’s what I understand Jesus is doing from this passage – then I also realize it won’t be easy. So many things get in the way. Past disappointments or hurts that still haunt us. Old grudges and wounds that are a long time healing. Painful memories that are slow to fade.

Given this, I wonder if you’d be willing to venture a zany idea? I invite you to use the index card in today’s bulletin for a simple exercise. I invite you to write down just one thing you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity. Something you’ve done in the past for which you haven’t yet sought or received forgiveness, or for which you need to make amends. Something someone else has done to you that still lingers unresolved between you. Some character trait or personal habit or outlook on life or . . . whatever it might be . . . you get the idea.

I invite you to write it down, and when you come up to communion, to place it face down in the baptism bowl. No one will read it as they come up to communion. Your name won’t be on it, and no one will see it to analyze the handwriting or to otherwise try to identify who wrote what. I’ll collect the cards during the final hymn and shred them so they won’t become public knowledge later.

By placing them in the bowl, though, we release one thing that is impeding our relationship with God, our growth in becoming more Christ-like. As we come forward, we give it to God, expecting Him to heal whatever it is that needs healing. Symbolically, we drown it in the saving waters of baptism, which washes away all our sins and renews our life. We can come to the altar, then, and receive Jesus’ body and blood, another tangible sign of God’s forgiveness, as well as the empowerment we need to live the life God desires of us.

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Transitions: New Beginnings

Four weeks ago when we launched this series on change and transition I told you a bit of my story of moving from Fresno to San Bruno. It was a journey marked by both grief and excitement, as the journey of change and transition often is. Saying good-bye was hard. Saying hello was a little scary. And being in a new place was more than a little disorienting.

I spent several months in the neutral zone that we explored last week, the wilderness of ambiguity and uncertainty. It felt a bit as if I had lost my sight and therefore all the cues that make life familiar and comfortable. But after a few months something began to happen.

I stopped by the new coffee shop I had begun to frequent and the barista greeted me by name. I found my way to a meeting the next town over without using my Thomas Guide map (back in the prehistoric days before GPS!). I came to church, and I realized that I knew lots of faces and names. I even knew which key fit which lock! And it began to dawn on me that I had begun to let go of what had been . . . my life in Fresno . . . and had begun to envision and embrace a new beginning, a new life in San Bruno, a life that became quite familiar and quite wonderful.

Today, as we conclude this series on change and transition, we’re going to explore new beginnings, the last major movement of the work of transition. Remember…change is what happens outside of us; transitions are the inward journey of coping and adapting to change. We’ve presented this series because we want to fill your personal toolbox with skills and perspectives that will help you to successfully navigate the inevitable changes of life, but there’s also another reason.

This isn’t just about our individual journeys; it’s also about our journey together as Trinity Lutheran Church. Thriving into the future will require us to navigate the challenges of change, and the more equipped we are to successfully navigate that journey the more God’s mission and ministry with thrive in our midst. And to that end today’s scripture reading from Joshua 1 is helpful.

The story begins with a death. Moses is dead. Moses was the community’s anchor, their connection to God. He had come to the Israelites as they languished in slavery, and he told them that God had not forgotten them; that they would be going home. Moses stood toe to toe with Pharaoh and went 10 rounds, until by the power of God, they were released from their slavery. Moses was George Washington and Billy Graham all wrapped into one. And now, Moses was dead. Now the people were standing on the edge of the Jordan River, the boundary between the wilderness and Promised Land without their leader. Who would lead the people now? What would the future hold? Would the people be willing and able to let go of Moses and embrace a new leader and a new future?

And then there’s Joshua, Moses’ protégé. Joshua would have wrestled with his own grief over Moses’ death but God spoke into that grief about new beginnings. God whispered directions: lead the people, obey my commands, enter the Promised Land, take possession of it and fear no one. And God also whispered promises: I will be with you, no one will be able to stand against you, I will not forsake you. And if we were to read further into the book of Joshua we would learn that Joshua did as the Lord commanded. He led the people into a new beginning in the Promised Land.

It’s a wonderful story, but as is true of so many of the great biblical stories it is also our story. And it has much to teach us about change and transition, and especially about new beginnings. For instance, new beginnings always start with a death of sorts, a letting go of what was, a willingness to release all that was once familiar. That’s hard work.

For Joshua that meant letting go of Moses and Moses’ leadership. For me it meant letting go of the life I had known in Fresno. That took time. But this letting go is an important step because we cannot embrace what God has in store for us if we refuse to let go of the past. Let me say that again, we cannot embrace what God has in store for us if we refuse to let go of the past.

I think some of us have struggled with that important step here at Trinity. Many of you joined the church when Madera was a smaller and more tight knit community. In those days, the church was filled with young families. But both the community and the world around us have changed radically over the years and we’ve been living in transition. Both this new community and new world are filled with opportunity, but we cannot embrace a new beginning until we are willing to let go of the past.

That doesn’t mean that we forget the past, or pretend that it didn’t happen, or somehow devalue the remarkable things that God has done through us in this place. But it does mean that our yearning for what God has in store for us must be stronger than our pining for the past. Is that true for you? As I anticipate changes and transitions this summer, is that true for me? Is our yearning for what God has in store for us stronger than our pining for the past?

Just as God whispered a new beginning into the heart of Joshua, we trust that God will do the same in us. That’s why we will spend an evening together on March 13th at Perkos, sharing dinner, remembering Trinity’s past, and dreaming together about our future. This event is called “An Evening of Historical Reflection.” But it’s more than mere navel gazing or a trip down memory lane; this evening of remembering and dreaming will be an opportunity for us to hear God’s whispers into our life as a church. We all have something to speak into the evolving vision of who God is calling us to be. So, I hope you’ll set aside this evening for dinner and dreaming! It should be a very worthwhile evening.

This is your church. It’s not my church. It’s not the Council’s church. No matter how active or influential, it’s not any one family’s church. You are the Church, and your voice matters. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I trust that it will be good because God is good and God is in our future.

While some people love and embrace change easily, for many others change is troubling, upsetting, disorienting. Sometimes it feels as if you’ve walked into your home only to realize that someone moved all the light switches and furniture! One reason I don’t like sleeping in strange hotel rooms or guest rooms in other people’s houses. I can make it to the bathroom in the middle of the night at my house, but invariably I’ll bang my shin or bash my big toe on the corner of some piece of furniture when I’m away from home. Can you relate?

When we can no longer hold onto the familiarity and comfort of the past, what can we hold onto? Onto what do we cling for security? For peace of mind? Like Joshua, I would suggest we cling to the promises of the One who is clinging to us, the One who will never let us go.

The promises given to Joshua, the promises that provided Joshua with the courage to move forward, putting one foot in front of that another, are promises that are given to us as well, “I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. Nothing can snatch you out of my hand. My rod and my staff will comfort you. My word will guide you. My people will walk with you and I will lead you. Do not be afraid.”

These are promises that sound a lot like those made by another Joshua – someone we may know as Yeshua, Jesus – many years ago to his disciples: “I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. Nothing can snatch you out of my hand. My rod and my staff will comfort you. My word will guide you. Do not be afraid.”

One way Joshua’s community had to live out that stepping out in faith: in chapter 3 when the Israelites had gathered at the Jordan river and were ready to cross into the promised land, God made it clear that he would stop the river to allow the people to cross. However, they had to get their feet wet first before God would stop the river from flowing.

I have great appreciation for our past and I have great hope for our future. But I don’t mind confessing to you that at times I feel a bit lost, a bit disoriented and afraid. I long for a perfectly clear picture of the future and perfectly clear path to follow, but I almost never experience new beginnings that way.

Instead I take courage in God’s promises. I seek to listen carefully to the whisper of God in my soul. I hold tightly to the hands of my brothers and sisters who walk the journey with me. And I put one foot in front of the other, letting go of what has been, clinging tightly to the hope that is ours in Christ, and trusting that God is clinging even more tightly to us. Amen

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The Neutral Zone: Life in the Meantime

We’re in the middle of a four-week series on Transitions. Last week, we looked at how to navigate the many changes we face, by keeping the ending in mind. Next week, we’ll finish up as we explore the new beginnings that emerge from the changes we face.

desert-wilderness-frank-wilsonOur theme this week is the neutral zone, the wilderness, that in-between place of not being any longer what we were, and not yet being what we will become. This idea of the neutral zone is found in many of the key stories in Scripture. In our reading two weeks ago, we heard about Abraham and Sarah moved from the ending of life in their home country surrounded by family and friends into the neutral zone—the wilderness of traveling between homes. There are many more, of course! For me, the most touching story of the neutral zone is found in the book of Exodus, in the saga of Israel’s move from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

The people of God come to the end of a generation of slavery only to walk into the neutral zone — literally into the wilderness. And they hated it! The end of their captivity and slavery under Pharaoh was good news; they had languished in slavery for over 400 years. They walked into the wilderness of their neutral zone — that place between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it was so bad that they wanted to die. I mean, this was bad!

The story tells us that they were only a month and a half into their 40-year wilderness wandering, and they were already lamenting:

If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

The wilderness of the neutral zone is a tough place. If the Ending is the place where people grieve their losses and then let them go, then “The Neutral Zone” is that in-between place where we lose our sense of relatedness and purpose. It’s that place where people are no longer who and where they were, but they are not yet who and where they’re going to be.

So much of who we are is tied up in the old way of life that we feel lost and empty without it. At this stage, there’s nothing new to anchor us or to give us any context or meaning, and that can be difficult, confusing and painful.

In fact, many people literally go off into the “wilderness” during this phase to “sort it all out.” There’s a strong desire to be alone, to think and regroup. A lot of people report heightened intuition, personal insights and almost “spiritual” awakenings. But it’s still a challenging place.

Can you relate?

Your old job is over; but you haven’t found a new one yet.

You’re single once again; but not sure if you should begin something new with someone else.

You’ve moved to a new town but have no idea how you’ll define yourself in that community.

You’ve retired, but have no idea what you’ll do with all the extra time.

Your youngest child has moved out of the house, finally! But what’s next for you? You’re still a parent, but now also, an empty-nester. What’s THAT about?!

trapeseThere are all kinds of analogies and metaphors for “The Neutral Zone.” My favorite: a trapeze artist — there is that in-between stage when you have let go of one trapeze, and you have not yet grasped the other trapeze that you hope is coming your way.  The challenge of living in that fluid time between one rung and the other. In the midst of this we ask: “What am I doing?” “Where am I going?” “Why did I do this?”

The most important thing we can keep in mind is not to try to rush through this phase. It’s an important and necessary process, but for a lot of people the natural response is to grab a hold of something — anything —new, in order to get out of that uncomfortable place. But if sufficient time isn’t allowed for the dust to settle and the pieces to fall back into place in their own way, the wrong decision can easily be made. The purpose of exploration in “The Neutral Zone” is to face this reality, and creatively explore and discover new ways of doing things.

It can even be dicey for churches to navigate the wilderness of the Neutral zone. Every congregation faces numerous changes and endings in its life and ministry. And with every ending comes the Wilderness of the Neutral Zone. The Wilderness is where we ask: What now? What do this mean? We’re no longer where we were, but we’re also not yet where we’re going to be. For some, this is comfortable, for others, not so much.

Perhaps one of the best words of wisdom for any of us as we step into this wilderness is simply this: Be still. Be still and know that God is God. The best thing to do is to find solitude in the midst of a very world that constantly demands our attention. Carve out some time each day to just sit quietly and think, journal, pray, listen, etc. And it’s probably a really good idea to resist — if not out-rightly reject the demand to respond, to act, to decide. Only through this stillness can we experience the renewal that will lead us to, and through, the final stage of New Beginning.

Here, God gives us some help. Scripture reminds us of the handholds God offers us to keep our balance. If we’re not sure who we are or what we are to do in this neutral zone, Scripture reminds us that we are the light of God shining in this time and place.

candleIn language that shows up in our baptismal service, Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel that we are the light of the world, and that we are to let our good works shine before others so that they would see God reflected in all we do and give God the glory. (Matthew 5.16) We can reflect this light, even when we’re wandering through the wilderness of the neutral zone.

For, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 2, it is not our power at work doing anything. It is God’s power working through us. That power can flow just as easily now, in this in between season called the interim as it can at some other time.

handsAnd Scripture offers a final promise: through it all, God is always with us in the midst of change, guiding us through transition. If the wilderness is that place where God shapes his people for whatever is coming next, and if God is doing that with us even now, calming our fears, healing our brokenness, shaping our vision and making us new.

That doesn’t mean that change and transition will be easy, but it does mean that we will never be alone and that we can trust that God is at work in ways we cannot always see in the moment.


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Transitions: Beginning with the End in Mind

crying babyChange can be a messy, complicated, difficult business. It’s been said, in fact, that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Change is hard because it requires that we step out of what’s familiar, comfortable and safe into the unknown and that’s scary business.

But equipped with some good resources, change can also lead to transformation and new life. That’s what this series on Change and Transitions is all about. We began to learn two very important things last week. First, knowing the difference between changes and transitions is the key to beginning to thrive in the midst of it all. Changes are external; a move to a new town, starting a different job, the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a new health care plan. Even buying a new car is a change. Transition, on the other hand, is the interior stuff that goes on in our hearts and minds. Transition take place on the inside, it’s the emotional process of dealing with physical changes. Secondly, there are three movements to making healthy transitions: there’s an ending— which we’re dealing with today; there’s a neutral zone, and there’s a new beginning. We’re looking at ‘Endings’ today.

We face endings in our lives every day. And in order for new life to eventually emerge, we’ve got to deal with endings—the ending of the things that are holding us back so that we can put them into perspective and move into God’s new beginnings. We love to hang on and not let go, but the purpose of the “Ending Stage” involves dealing with the pain, the loss, the grief that accompany the change. Depending on the individual situation, this can be extremely painful and gut-wrenching. But there is always hope.

noahsfloodOne of the most epic stories of an ending comes from the ancient tale of the Flood found in Genesis 6-9. In that ancient story we look into the heart of God who sees that humankind has turned in on itself and will, unless God intervenes with grace, mercy and new life, grind to a halt and die. It was the end of the ‘Beginning’ as they knew it, and no one felt fine. It was the end of the beautiful, life-giving ‘Beginning’ that God dreamed of for all of creation and humankind. So God calls on Noah, a good man, a faithful man who walks with God and through him provides a way for humankind to take one last long look at the ending of what was before turning toward the new beginning of what will be.

In what usually gets described as a story of an angry, vengeful, mean, and murderous God doing angry, vengeful, mean and murderous things to humans, we actually see a compassionate, redemptive, merciful and loving God creating new life out of death. God creates a way where there is no way for life to begin again. So God creates a covenant, a promise of life with Noah and all his descendants. But first, they must say farewell to the end of what was. It must have been terrifying to walk into the darkness of that ark and not know what was coming. All they had was the promise that God would be with them.

Letting go of the past not knowing what the future holds can be terrifying. Leaving Fresno in 1989 to take first call in San Bruno, I can remember attending the last worship service at our church (where Karen and I had gotten married and which had been our spiritual home for three years). They had a prayer time for us and a sending off into ministry. I remember hugging each of the pastors and just shaking inside, crying silently as I anticipated leaving this community behind.

I don’t believe this is something unique to me; it happens to all of us because all of us have faced endings: a move to this area from a different city, ending one job and starting a new one, ending one job and not starting a new one, the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a breakup, a divorce, a change in health and like a mentioned a moment ago, even buying a new car means letting go of an old one.

But coming to grips with the ending of something is the first step toward new life. Whether it’s shutting the door of the ark, or shutting the door on a relationship, an old job, an old identity, the old way of doing things, it’s still the first step. There’s no time line and even though we all get to do it, we all get to do it in our own way. But until we do that, we’ll not get anywhere.

Considering that we all have to deal with endings throughout our whole lives, most of us handle endings poorly. This is in part because we misunderstand endings and take them either too seriously or not seriously enough. We take endings too seriously by confusing them with finality—that’s it, all over, no more, finished! We see endings as something without sequel, forgetting that they are the first phase of the transition process and a precondition of self-renewal. At the same time, we fail to take endings seriously enough. Because they scare us, we try to avoid them.

It can even be dicey for churches to navigate endings. The church at which I am currently the interim pastor is no different. There have been a lot of changes in this congregation in the past several months, and there are two ways of looking at those changes. For some, it’s about loss.  In many ways it feels like a death — like the death of a loved one. Change is tough because it brings with it a lot of fear. For some, the seven safest words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”

lettinggoBut for others those are the seven last words of the church. For others, change is invigorating, exciting, freeing. Letting go of the past, not knowing what the future holds can be riveting. Leaving things the way they were done at one time and heading off in a new direction feels like rebirth; a breath of fresh air. For others, an ending is like oxygen—it breathes new life into them. But let me be clear about this; all of those things are changes — that is, they’re the physical changes. The new life that God has for us is found in how we transition through those changes; how we deal with the changes.

So I’d like to suggest a way of moving through the ending stage; a way of taking just a few steps with whatever change you’re dealing and getting traction for the way ahead. We’re going to call this process the “A-B-Cs” of dealing with endings. First, the A: Acknowledge the Ending. Secondly, the B: Begin Open; and finally C: Commit to the Change.

Let’s explore what this looks like.

To begin with, “Acknowledge the Ending.” You can do one of two things here: first, you could sing the title phrase of the 1987 hit by R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Or, if that’s just a little too silly, then at least begin by saying to yourself: “That was then, and this is now.” Either way, acknowledging that you’re facing an ending is the first step toward a new beginning.

I remember coming the point several months after we moved to San Bruno of truly realizing that we’d moved, that we were in San Bruno to stay, and that we weren’t going back to Fresno except to visit at the holidays. I quit looking backward and focused on where I was. That was an acknowledgment that a significant chapter of our life had come to an end and it was time to move on. We weren’t disregarding it, or denying the importance of it. We made room for the grief of leaving Fresno, and we gave ourselves permission / space to engage with the people of our new church. Acknowledge the ending.

Secondly, Be Open — be open to explore the possibility that something new will come out of the ending. Allowing ourselves to see the ending from a perspective of hope, we acknowledge that this isn’t the way it’s always going to be. The story from Genesis 6 through 9 reminds us that creation wasn’t “Once and Done.” We’re reminded that creation is always happening. When we open ourselves up to the good news that with God we can, indeed begin again, brings us from death to life, from falsehood to truth from despair to hope, from hate to love and from war to peace. Be open.

Thirdly, Commit yourself to trusting God. God is always with us in the midst of change, and guiding us through transition. The biblical truth is that God is always on the move. Whether it’s with Noah and his family and the recreation of the world, or Abraham and Sarah, bringing them from Ur to the Promised Land down the Egypt and back again, or Moses, Miriam, and Aaron trekking from Egypt back to the Promised Land, or the disciples hanging out with Jesus as they walked throughout Galilee, the Decapolis, and Judea, God is always on the move.

With every end there is a new beginning. The wilderness that is in between has always been the place where God shapes his people for whatever is coming next. And that’s still true today.

footprintsEven through the most difficult changes God is present and guiding us through the transitions, calming our fears, healing our brokenness, shaping our vision and making us new. Just as God was present with Abram, just as God was present with the Israelites, just as God was present with Jesus, God is present with us. That doesn’t mean that change and transition will be easy, but it does mean that we will never be alone and that we can trust that God is at work in ways we cannot always see in the moment.

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Thriving in the Midst of Change

Moving from Illinois to California

penske-truck-van-rentalsIn June, 1988 everything changed for me. I was born and raised outside of Chicago, and I went to college and graduate school in Minnesota. But in June of 1988 I crammed all my earthly belongings into a small U-Haul trailer, and I moved across the country from IL to Fresno.

I had moved some before – primarily back and forth from home to school every year. But no matter how often you’ve done it, moving is always both exciting and disorienting. It requires that you let go of what was, live in the ambiguity of what is, and hold on until what will be becomes the new normal.

Letting go wasn’t easy. I had to let go of friends who had become dear to me. A city that I had come to love. A seminary community that had become my spiritual home. And, of course, I went from being a Bear to a Bulldog. Oh, the things God asks us to do because of our faith!

And while letting go isn’t easy, it doesn’t hold a candle to the challenges of living in the ambiguity of what will eventually become the new normal. I needed a new doctor, a new dentist, a new mechanic, new places to shop, a new place to drink coffee (back in the day before there was a Starbucks on seemingly every corner), a new place to drink beer, not to mention I needed new friends.

In the span of a couple of months, I faced a new apartment, a new marriage and a new job as a hospital chaplain. People looked at me like I should know what I was doing, but I was struggling to find the rest room nearest my office! And dealing with sick and stressed out people everyday . . . yikes!!

Abraham and Sarah

abesarahChange is hard. It isn’t easy to let go of what was, and it’s really tough to manage your emotions through the ambiguity of what is. So, perhaps we can imagine what must have been going on inside of Abraham and Sarah as they left their homeland. The heartache, the anxiety, and perhaps even the hopeful expectation of what God had in store for them? It might leave us wondering how they managed through such radical and unexpected change. But I suspect at least a part of the answer to that question is found in God’s promises, “I will show you. I will go with you. I will bless you.” And throughout the story that unfolds in Genesis God’s faithful presence is revealed again and again.

Truth is we can probably all relate to Abraham and Sarah’s story at some level because Abraham and Sarah’s story is our story. A new school. A new job. A diagnosis. A divorce. A move. A new baby. An empty nest. A new pastor. We all experience change.

Some changes seem rather small, like when your favorite food store no longer carries your favorite brand of corn flakes. Other changes seem insurmountably huge, like a mountain in the middle of your life’s path – the loss of a loved one far too soon, a move to a new community and school, a diagnosis that doesn’t leave much hope. Such changes leave us wondering how we will ever move forward.

Change is inevitable. And that’s why we’ll be spending the next few weeks exploring change. Throughout this sermon series I want to equip you with tools and perspectives to help you to navigate the inevitable changes of life. By the end of it, I want to you to feel encouraged in your ability to move through the changes of life with more confidence, more peace and more growth. I also hope this series will help us as a church to navigate the inevitable changes in our future as a thriving faith community.

Today, using Abraham and Sarah’s story let me outline three core principles that will set the stage for the rest of this series, principles that will help to navigate change.

I Change vs. Transition

First, it really helps to know the difference between change and transition. Change is what happens outside of us; transition is the inner process of dealing with and navigating through change. Let me say that again – change is what happens outside of us; transition is the inner process of dealing with and navigating through change.

For Abraham and Sarah, one change was physically moving; the transition was learning to let go of what was in order to embrace what will be, learning to get comfortable with not knowing exactly where they were going, discovering who they were now that their identity wasn’t connected to the land of their ancestors.

Another part of their change, though, included a change of identity. They had been a childless, nomadic couple. Now, God was calling them to be parents and to be set apart as a community for God, a light reflecting God’s presence in the world. This change brought about many transitions in their self-perceptions, as well as in their trust in God’s plan and provision for their new life.

I suspect that’s true for most of the changes and transitions in our lives. Imagine that your change was the loss of your job. What would your transitions be? What might you have to let go of? A regular income, a group of colleagues and friends, a regular place to go every morning, a way to use your talents, a way to structure your time, a bunch of plans for the future, a way to get appreciated. You’d also lose an identity—or at least an answer to the question, “What do you do?”

What if the change were the death of a spouse or a child? What might you have to let go of? Our identity as a married person; the security of having a spouse / companion living with you and sharing household chores. The dreams associated with looking forward to retirement or children having children.

What if the change involves the calling of a new pastor? What might you have to let go of? The new pastor is not like the old one; a difference in style, manner, focus, giftedness, sense of humor, personality, etc.

Why is knowing the difference between change and transition important? If change is a mountain the pathway of your life, transition is the pathway over, around, under or through it. The key to navigating the inevitable changes in life is learning how to manage the transitions. We’ll talk much more of that in coming weeks.

II Change’s Common Pattern

Here’s the second core principle: almost all change follows a common pattern. We move from what’s familiar, through something called the neutral zone, to a new reality. The neutral zone is that place in which we struggle with all the transitions that accompany change: what we need to let go of, what we need to embrace, how we get our needs met, who we are now. Life is the neutral zone is often fuzzy and chaotic and painful and sometimes more than a little scary, but it is also the place of tremendous personal growth.

Imagine that your change is the death of a parent. In order to move from what was familiar to what will become the new normal you have to pass through the neutral zone. In the neutral zone you’ll grieve. You may wrestle with guilt and anger. Perhaps you feel like you should have done more for your parent. Or, perhaps you spent a large percentage of your time helping, and you resented it, but you couldn’t say that while they were alive. Or, perhaps, you’re relieved to be done with the responsibility of caring for them, but you also feel a loss of purpose since you’re no longer the caregiver.

You will need to let go of some things and embrace a new identity. Who are you now without that parent? This neutral zone can be exhausting, frightening, confusing and lonely. It is also the crucible in which you will grow in ways you could never imagine.

In Abraham and Sarah’s story what was familiar was the land of their ancestors where they had lived all their life. The new reality would eventually be the Promised Land. But between those two was the neutral zone, the time of transition for Abraham and Sarah. Often in the biblical story neutral zone is symbolized by the wilderness. Think about it. Between his old home and his new Abraham and Sarah wandered through the wilderness. Along the way, they tried to help God out, to further God’s promise of a child to them (Gen 16). They laughed at God’s promise, not really believing it would happen. (Gen 18).

desert-wilderness-frank-wilsonBetween their slavery in Egypt and their freedom in the Promised Land the Israelites traveled through the wilderness.. This was a time of both great faith and great faithlessness. They grumbled against Moses and God during this wilderness season. They learned to trust God to provide food – manna and quail – for them to eat every day. They learned obedience, to move when God said and to stay where God said. And they demonstrated disobedience when they took matters into their own hands and fashioned for themselves a carved image of a golden calf (Ex 32).

Between Jesus’ baptism and his public ministry he spent time in the wilderness. There, he was tempted by the devil to distrust God’s plan for his life as a suffering messiah who would die for us.

And that’s still true today. My wilderness wanderings now, first, while serving as interim at Easton, and now this spring, at Trinity. This has been a time to finish my DMin, and to attend to family matters. The Interim season now for Trinity – a time to reflect on the ministry God is calling us to do and to discern the gifts and skills needed in a next pastor.

But this isn’t wasted time. Neither is it a season to be hurried through – for me personally, or for us as a congregation – in order to get to the next chapter; what Paul Harvey might call “the rest of the story.” The wilderness is a metaphor for transition, that place where we wrestle with all that we must let go of in order to embrace all that will be.

III God With Us

And that leads us to the final principle we need to know – God is always with us in the midst of change, guiding us through transition.

God’s word to Israel in Psalm 27. Keep your eyes on God. God is our light and our salvation; our source of strength for each day and our stability in the midst of change.

walkwaterAlso, when Jesus invited Peter to leave the safety of the boat and walk to him on the water, do you remember what happened? Peter did fine while he was looking at Jesus. But when he took his eyes off of Jesus and noticed the waves and the storm, then he began to sink. (Mt 14.29-31)

Jesus’ promise to his friends the night before his death. I will not leave you orphaned; I will give you the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit who will ground you in my teachings and refresh your connection to me. Through the Holy Spirit, I will bring you peace, a peace the world cannot give. (Jn 14.18ff; 14.26ff)


Even through the most difficult changes God is present and guiding us through the transitions, calming our fears, healing our brokenness, shaping our vision and making us new. Just as God was present with Abraham and Sarah, just as God was present with the Israelites, just as God was present with Jesus, God is present with us now. That doesn’t mean that change and transition will be easy, but it does mean that we will never be alone and that we can trust that God is at work in ways we cannot always see in the moment.

Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” But I would add change to that list. Just ask Abraham and Sarah. And by faith I would add this too, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” no matter what the change.

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Who Are We? Whose Are We?

I can remember when I was young; I was frequently known as “Rob and Ginny’s son.” I can remember liking that most of the time. Aside from a brief season of teen-aged rebellion, I didn’t mind being known as their son. Perhaps there was time in your life when you were also known according to your relationship with your parents.

As time passed, the roles changed, at least a little bit anyway. As I became busy in High School, I wasn’t introduced as much as ‘Rob and Ginny’s son.’ Whether it was at band functions or Scout events, or later, in the church, more often they were introduced as “Al’s parents.” I must admit – I kinda liked that a little better! Hopefully, they were as proud to be known that way, as I was to be known as their child.

Aside from Allen Schoonover, I’ve been introduced as a Boy Scout; a band and orchestra member; a student; a teacher’s husband; and a pastor. The bank knows me as one set of numbers; the government, as a different set of numbers. For the last 17 years, I’ve taken on the identity of father; first, as “Abby’s Dad,” and for the past 7 years, as “Amy’s Dad.” I really like that identity!! I hope they are as proud to be “Al and Karen’s daughter” as we are to be their parents

It seems to me that you and I will take on a number of roles and identities in our lifetime. We will take some of them on gladly, even eagerly. We’ll wear others less willingly; less joyfully. Nevertheless, it’s important to be clear about who we are. If we don’t have a clear sense of personal identity, then we’ll flounder throughout our life

If we don’t know who we are as individuals, we will be vulnerable to many different pressures in life. If we don’t have a clear sense of boundaries, then others will take advantage of us. If we don’t know who we are, our self-esteem may suffer. Psychiatrist’s couches are filled with people who are trying to get in touch with who they are, because they don’t know or like the person they’ve become

It seems to me that this is a timeless concern. We face it as toddlers when we first begin to assert our own independence. I can vaguely remember telling my mother when I was still pretty young, Please, mommy, do it self. Our daughters have said the same thing to us almost daily. This is only right and proper. We need to discover who we are and be able to assert our independence. Later, as teenagers, we continue to struggle to distance ourselves from our parents; to be “our own self.

And the struggle continues as young adults. In the work world, in our personal lives, in our relationships with those closest to us, who will we be? We have such power to shape our identity. Other powers in the world would also help shape the type of person we would be. The pressures to be ‘successful’ in business might influence us to make certain life choices. The need to find affection and companionship might influence us to choose less than healthy partners

MidLife-CrisisThe struggle over our identity doesn’t stop when we hit 25 or 30; it continues through mid-life as well. The life we anticipate as we leave school may not measure up to the reality we face as we approach our 40s. Our body shape may change. Our ‘unlimited potential’ as teenagers and young adults runs smack into the realities of limited time and energies. And our mortality. So our struggle for identity can lead us to inner peace or into a mid-life crisis

But our search for identity doesn’t end here. As we face and enter retirement, we hit another pinch point. If we were employed all our life, who are we when we no longer have a job? If our identity comes from raising a family, what happens when the nest is empty? If our identity comes primarily from being a spouse, what happens when we are widowed and we are left alone?

Without a clear sense of identity, we don’t really know who we are or what our purpose is. And if this is true for us as individuals, it’s equally applicable to a church.

As you know, we’re in the midst of a pastoral transition. As a congregation, we are nearly 70 years old. It’s a good time to ask some thoughtful questions about ourselves and our ministry: Who are we? Whose are we? What is it about our experience of Jesus that Madera needs? Do we have a clear sense of purpose, of mission? If so, then we will remain healthy. If not, then we risk entering a cycle of decline.

Our reading from Matthew, however, offers us some guidance with this issue of identity. The story is of Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. This is a key moment in Jesus’ life, because here he receives the assurance of his relationship with God. God’s voice tells him that he is God’s ‘son’ and that he is ‘the beloved.’ The one whom God loves and will be with. Even as Jesus is driven out into the wilderness in the very next verse to face a long period of testing. You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mk 1.11).

While not exactly the same, our baptisms provide a similar assurance as to who we are and what our purpose is to be. At the font, you and I become children of God. We are made heirs of a promise of an eternal relationship with God. That God will be with us always, through all the trials and temptations we face in this life. That we, too, will be ‘beloved’ in God’s eyes. In spite of all the changes in life and fortune we might face, this identity stands the test of time.

toy_storyDo you remember the movie, “Toy Story?” In the movie, a little boy named Andy has a host of toys, but his favorite is a cowboy named “Woody.” In the world of the toys, Woody is also the leader of the toy community. Each birthday, though, all the toys shudder to think what new toys Andy will get. One year, Andy gets a super astronaut, Buzz Lightyear as a gift. Much to his dismay, Woody is tossed aside as favorite, and Buzz becomes the new ‘favorite.’

To make matters worse, Buzz believes the programming the toy makers put in him. He thinks that he is the “real” Buzz Lightyear, with the mission to save the world. Woody knows better, so he spends a long time trying to make Buzz understand that he’s only a toy, and not the real Buzz Lightyear. When Buzz finally makes this connection, he becomes clinically depressed; he’s lost his identity and purpose. He mopes around, and when the evil kid next door gets him and Woody, Buzz isn’t willing to do anything to save either of them.

andyAt the last moment, however, Buzz looks at the bottom side of his shoe and sees where Andy has written Andy’s name on the sole. It hits him — he is somebody’s toy. He has an identity and a purpose — to bring Andy pleasure. True, it’s not saving the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg. But it does give Buzz the spirit to get himself and Woody away from the next-door neighbor and home to Andy and the other toys

It seems to me that who we are ought not be limited by the ‘programming’ we receive from the world. Whatever our jobs might be, or our roles in life, or our responsibilities as parents, these identities and missions change. Our sole, primary identity comes, instead, from the one who inscribes a name on us at our baptism. Not on our feet, but on our foreheads. In our liturgy we say to the newly baptized, You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the Christ forever. Paul reminds us that we have been given a “spirit of adoption” and made heirs and children of God (Rom 8.23; Gal 4.5 6).

This identity as God’s children infuses our ministry here. As a church, our identity, our mission ought not be limited by the perceptions placed on us from outside or from within. God is doing a new thing in us, personally, and that new thing has the capability of changing both us and this community called Trinity.

The identity written on our foreheads and nurtured through the faith community and at the table of our Lord is one that gives us a particular mission and purpose. Through our baptism, we become ministers of God’s reconciliation in the world (2 Cor 5.16-21). This identity is one that will last forever; or, as Buzz would put it: “to infinity, and beyond.”

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Where’s Waldo? Where’s Jesus

Where’s Waldo?

waldo2Have you ever asked, “Where’s Waldo?”

It’s a fun children’s puzzle game in which you try to find the Waldo figure somewhere in the middle of a picture. What makes finding Waldo a challenge? He’s usually buried in a “busy” puzzle with lots of characters. It can be hard to distinguish Waldo from all the other figures.

Where’s Jesus?!

Epiphany’s gospel reading – magi are looking for Jesus. They’ve studied Scriptures, and they followed the star. Now, they arrive in Bethlehem and worship Jesus, and they give him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Isaiah’s words in first reading are now fulfilled in Jesus:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (60.1,3,6)

candleIsrael was supposed to be that light. God chose Abraham and Sarah, and God blessed them to be a blessing so that the entire world might be blessed. (Gen 12.2-3) In time, though, that large, inclusive worldview narrowed considerably. In time, the OT teachings and stories that we supposed to set Israel apart as different than others, and thereby help them point to the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, instead became used to distinguish insiders (Israelites) from outsiders (everyone else) and to reserve God’s blessings for the insiders, God’s chosen ones, Israel.

Epiphany loosens that exclusive hold on God’s blessings and restores God’s inclusive perspective toward the world. God’s love is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. This was Paul’s radical word in our reading from Ephesians:

the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (3.6)

And this is what Jesus lived out in his encounters with people during his entire ministry. This openness attracted so many people to him as he made his way through both Jewish and Gentile portions of Palestine.

Irony in the Search for Jesus

There’s a great irony in this, though. The very people who should have been looking for him – Herod and the Jewish religious leaders – weren’t. They were too distracted by their lives and clouded by their prejudices to see what was right in front of them. On the other hand, the very people one wouldn’t expect to be looking – the Gentile magi who didn’t have faith in God – were. Their eyes and their hearts were opened.

Another irony: Herod and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were only 6 miles away from Jesus’ birthplace. Had they been interested, they could have walked there in less than three hours. On the other hand, the magi traveled for months following the star, until they finally arrived in Bethlehem.

For What are We Looking?

May imagine that more are asking, “Where’s Waldo?” nowadays than “Where’s Jesus?” According to the latest census date from 2010 (www.city-data.com), Madera County boasts 31% of its population participates in some faith community. Fresno County: 47% participation, and the national US Average: 50.2 %. But maybe that’s not fair. Many are asking about Jesus; however, they may not be involved in a church as they do it.

This was the story of my mother, who had a falling out with the Episcopal Church when she was in her 20s. Although she left the church, she spent most of her life exploring other faith traditions and new age philosophies trying to fill the “God sized hole” in her life.

Challenge for us: when people come here looking for Jesus, what do they find? Do we reflect Jesus’ inclusive, welcoming stance? Or do our traditions and styles and culture here unintentionally put up barriers for newcomers? It’s a question with which every congregation, every leadership team needs to struggle. Honestly and openly.

Attracted by the Light

John and Mary, a poor Irish couple living by the Irish Sea. They only had a one-room hovel with only a dirt floor under their feet. Both worked hard all day, every day to scratch out their simple life. They didn’t have much, but they had each other. Now Mary was pregnant. One day, John came home bone weary from the fields. Made a little supper, and they fell into bed, exhausted; asleep almost immediately.

Soon, Mary nudged John and said, “Wake up and turn on the light, I think the baby’s coming!” What exciting news! In a flash John was up out of bed and turned on the light, and sure enough, the baby had come. So he went around the house until he found a small piece of cloth and wrapped the baby in it; placed it between him and Mary and got back into bed. As he drifted back to sleep, he thought, “We don’t have much, but I’ve got a family now; that’s enough.”

Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up, turn on the light, I think there’s a baby coming!!” Oh my, how can it be twins?!” John thought. But he got up, turned on the light and sure enough, it was another baby! John looked through the house until he found another piece of cloth, wrapped the baby up, placed it between them on the bed and fell into bed himself. How he was a little nervous – they didn’t have much, and now there were four of them in their one room shack. How would they survive??? With these anxious thoughts running through his mind, he fell into a restless sleep.

Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming!” Oh, no!! Triplets. How can this be? But John got up and turned on the light and sure enough, there was a third child. So he searched the house; couldn’t find any cloth, so used some newspaper to wrap the child in; laid it between them on the bed and crawled in himself.

Now, John was scared! Triplets AND a wife AND himself in this one room dirt floor hovel? With fear gnawing at his heart and now three children squirming between them, he lay there wide awake, staring at the ceiling.

Little while later, Mary nudged John and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming.” This time, John rolled over and told Mary, “I’m sorry, honey, but I canna do that. You see, it’s the light that attracts them.”

How can we be an attractive light, shining Jesus’ love into the neighborhood and greater community? Jesus is our model here: Faithful teaching coupled with compassionate engagement with the community.

Religious leaders in Jesus’ day had the right theology, but they applied it in such a way as to create divisions between insiders and outsiders. Jesus’ ministry undid that. He maintained faithful teaching, but included with that teaching a care for others that drew people to him like flies to honey. Together, this good spiritual food and compassionate care transformed people’s lives and their relationship with God.

As we do this, we will live out our mission as servants of God: learning, living and sharing God’s great love! in a way that I believe will be attractive to folks like my mother who are asking “Where’s Jesus?”

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Happy New Year!

Every fall, I go a little crazy.

Just a little, mind you.

shadetreeWe have a big, beautiful tree in our front yard that provides wonderful shade to the west side of our house. Throughout the year I rake up the dribbling of leaves that fall from its branches as I mow and edge our yard each week. No big deal; I expect to do this.

What drives me a bit batty is that in December the trickle of falling leaves becomes a deluge . . . sort of. I no sooner rake up the mess than more leaves fall, making it look as though I haven’t done anything. Since my in-laws walk across those leaves every time they leave or return home, I really don’t want the fallen leaves to accumulate, especially when it rains (wet leaves can be very slippery underfoot). Now, if this silly tree would drop its leaves over the course of a few days, I could live with that. But no, as I write this it’s been three weeks, and the tree is still half full.

SisyphusThis brings to mind the story of Sisyphus, who, for his misdeeds, was punished by being forced to push a large boulder up a hill. Before he could reach the top, the massive stone would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. True, my leaf raking isn’t a punishment – it’s a joy to have a house and in-laws who live with us (really!) – but for a month or so, my leaf raking feels as futile as dear old Sisyphus and his rock.

There are times when each of us deals with seemingly hopeless situations – chronic health challenges, thorny work issues, dysfunctional family dynamics – that never change or get better. In the midst of this, it is easy to lose hope; to become resigned to circumstances that seem as though they will never change. In turn, we may be tempted to disengage or even become depressed at the future stretching out before you. As the Christmas carols fade in our memory and we turn over our calendars to 2014, I am reminded of the power made available to us to deal with the apparently unchangeable situations in which we find ourselves.

At this beginning of a new year, we have just celebrated how God entered into our human existence in a powerful and profound way: by becoming fully human and living among us. Because of this, nothing remains the same. The world says, “Death wins.” Jesus says, “I win.” The world says, “Nothing ever changes.” Jesus says, “I have made all things new.”

The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection affirms for us that death does not have the final word; neither do the seemingly unending tasks or burdens we face – even the burden of our sin. He removes that from us and gives us his peace, his perspective on our journey through life. In fact, he helps us reframe problems as opportunities to grow deeper in our faith and dependence on God.

The apostle Paul helps us see this when he writes this encouragement to the believers in Corinth:

For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory (beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!). 2 Corinthians 4:17 (The Amplified Bible)

May this New Year bring us a new perspective and some new insight into our circumstances, which might also lead us to a new and deeper relationship with God!

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A Blue Christmas

Joy and Pain

159615782The little boy toddle-ran across the family room after spotting his favorite blankie in the corner. Just before he got there, though, he tripped and fell hard. Usually one to catch himself with his hands, this time the 16 month old caught his forehead on his Fisher-Price holiday train instead. With big tears streaming down his face, he jumped up into his mother’s arms and cried for a couple of minutes. Then, sporting his own version of holiday colors on his head, he side-stepped the train and went about his business.

The very thing that had been bringing him so much pleasure suddenly caused him pain.

Holidays can be like that, can’t they?! There is so much talk about celebration and joy and happiness. Yet the very things that bring us pleasure can also bring us pain. We gather with family to share meals and memories. But we miss those we love who aren’t with us:

  • a loved one deployed with the military far from home;
  • a child away at school or working far from home;
  • a marriage fractured by separation and stress;
  • an empty chair representing the absence of a loved one who died this past year.

ChristmasSociety’s picturesque holiday scenes show happy families and fun times visiting with friends. But in reality, during this holiday season we may battle depression or loneliness.

Maybe this year was a year of fertility treatments that led to depleted savings rather than an expanding family.

Maybe this year was filled with work furloughs and pink slips and unemployment paperwork and job interview rejections and an ever diminishing sense of self.

Maybe this year was an unending stream of doctors appointments and tests and hazy diagnoses and ever diminishing energy and sense of hope for the future.

And so we hope time passes quickly and ushers us into a good new year. Because next year will be better. Because next year has to be better. Because next year can’t be as bad as this one was, right?!

For some reason, the holidays seem to magnify whatever emotions we’re dealing with, whether good or bad. That’s why we’re offering a Blue Christmas worship service this year. It’s a helpful way during the holidays to give space for the harder, darker emotions that may be associated with your Christmas.

Christmas (Kincaid)Even the first Christmas season was filled with angelic choirs singing Hallelujah choruses and surprise gifts from out of town guests, and untimely, tragic deaths, and unexpected holiday travel adventures. We need to come and rejoice at Jesus’ birth. And we need to hear a word from the Lord on how that birth still touches our lives this year if our holidays didn’t resemble a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid painting.

Listen Carefully to Scripture

We start with what may seem the most obvious, but still the most helpful place to start: We need to listen carefully to Scripture.

Sometimes, in the throes of life’s challenges we listen to the wrong messages, whether from well-meaning others or from within ourselves. Messages like:

God helps those who help themselves.

I like that one; it even sounds Biblical. There’s only one problem: it’s not in the Bible. And it’s contrary to God’s actions in Scripture, because frequently, God helps those who cannot help themselves precisely because they are powerless.

Or, how about this message:

If I were a good Christian (or if I had enough faith), I wouldn’t be struggling right now.

This is a tricky message to refute, because I suspect few of us here today, including the preacher, would disagree with the idea that they could be a more devoted follower of Jesus or that they would like to have more faith. I dunno . . . maybe I’m wrong: Anybody here make a return to Target after receiving too much faith as a Christmas present last week?

No, I didn’t think so.

And yet, neither message is Scriptural. Nowhere in the Bible are the challenges we face in this life related to the quality or quantity of our faith.

Maybe you’ve heard this message:

God uses these challenges to make me a better person / a better Christian.

As if God sits up in heaven thinking,

Alright, let’s give the Schoonovers four years of infertility treatments and several miscarriages so they’ll be better parents and appreciate their children more when they do finally have kids.

Now THAT’S the kind of God I want to worship! NOT! It’s one thing to go through life’s challenges and, through self-reflection or the trusted guidance of a counselor or pastor, grow as a person and develop compassion or empathy or other life skills. It’s quite another thing to think that God sends mishap or disappointments or heartache in order to shape us or develop our character.

I don’t believe Scripture supports this sort of view of God.

Or maybe you’ve heard this message:

God is judging me for some sin in my life.

 This was the question the disciples asked Jesus in John’s gospel when they met a man born blind:

 As he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9.1-2)

At least this idea – that the man was blind as a judgment for his sin – is Biblical. The fancy church word for this is “retribution” and it comes from Moses’ teaching to the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness after their release from slavery in Egypt:

God does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. (Ex 34:7)

It’s a teaching Job’s friends tried to use when they reassured Job that there was a reason for his losing all this possessions, and his family, and his health. You’ve brought this upon yourself, they said. There’s some unconfessed sin in your life. If you deal with that, then you’ll be fine and God will restore your fortunes. But it’s this idea of retribution that Jesus refuted when he responded to his disciples’ question:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn 9.3)

God doesn’t need to judge us or punish us in this life. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus took on the punishment we should have received because of our sin. But because Jesus suffered it for us, the penalty has been paid. There’s nothing we can do. So God doesn’t punish us in this life because of our sin.

When we sin, we may certainly face the natural consequences of our behavior. My dad smoked a pack or more a day for nearly 50 years. It’s no surprise he developed lung cancer, high blood pressure, and died of a stroke. Eat an unhealthy diet for years as an adult, and we can expect to deal with high cholesterol and weight issues, and even diabetes and heart disease. Abuse alcohol or drugs, and it’s not a surprise that we may destroy our liver, contract hepatitis, or even HIV. God isn’t punishing us with cancer or obesity or other health issues. They’re simply the natural consequences of our behavior. And we ought not blame God for them. The reason for our predicament is staring at us in the mirror.

Listening to Healthy Biblical Messages

Rather than listen to what the Bible doesn’t say, we need to listen carefully to what Scripture really says:

Our Testing Is Common To Everyone

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. (10.13a)

Nothing we’re going through is unique or unusual. When we are in the middle of a challenging time, it can seem like no one else has experienced what we’re going through. But of course, that’s not true. There is nothing in this life that we deal with that someone else hasn’t dealt with it. Strength of being part of a small group Bible Study or a group like Stephen Ministry or GriefShare. There are others who have gone through what you’re going through, and God may use us to be the resource that helps you find a way to endure the struggles you’re facing.

God Provides A Way Out

But there’s another part to God’s encouraging word from 1 Corinthians:

God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (10.13b)

When we feel overwhelmed by the struggles and temptations, God will offer us a way out. We may feel stuck and overwhelmed and unable to go on any more. But through this community of faith God offers a way to endure and make it through the struggles. While it’s easy – and even tempting to isolate ourselves when we’re going through hard times, it’s those times that we may need the support of our church family all the more. We are not meant to be islands unto ourselves.

God “Disciplines” Us With Difficult Times

This brings us to a Biblical message from Proverbs:

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. (3:11-12)

I’ll confess that as I pulled my notes together for this sermon I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this passage. Personally, I’m not real comfortable with the idea that God disciplines us. But the more I reflected on this Biblical message the more I realized I couldn’t skip it. And I realized that my reluctance had more to do with me than it did with God’s character or God’s love for us.

As I dug more deeply into this passage, I learned that the word “discipline” isn’t what I first expected. The image I had in mind was of a parent physically “disciplining” a child by spanking him or sending her to her room for a time out. The Hebrew word used here in Proverbs, though, has the fuller connotation of moral discipline, of teaching and instruction, than simply physical punishment. In fact, one could read the phrase this way,

My child, don’t reject the LORD’s instructionand don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.

This brings to mind the role of the “Law” in our Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel. God is revealed to us as both Law – in teachings about how we are to behave – and Gospel – the understanding that God freely offers us forgiveness for our sins and a restored relationship with God. In this, then, I hear Proverbs encourage us not to reject God’s Law; not to forget or downplay that there are some things that for our sake and for the sake of the community we dare not do.

This is a far cry from saying God sends hard times into our lives to give us a kind of spiritual “time out” or a dose of “divine castor oil”so we might amend our ways or grow in faith.

Which brings us to another Biblical message: 

Some Things Will Always Remain A Mystery

In the Old Testament, a fellah named Job had it all: family, livestock, a devout faith life; his was a successful life from every perspective. In a short time, he lost it all, including his own health. His friends basically told him it was his fault. He had surely done something to displease God. However, as the story begins, God describes Job as

blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. (1.8)

He’s done nothing wrong, yet his life is turned completely upside down. Toward the end of the story, Job rails against God for this apparent injustice, and God’s response is equally forceful. It goes on for three chapters, but here’s a highlight:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? (38:4-5, 8-11)

God puts Job in his place by reminding him that God is God and Job isn’t. Because of his human limitations, there will always be some things in life that will never understand. Paul’s says the same thing, though a little more gently, in 1 Corinthians:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (13.12)

No matter how hard we look to find connections or to make sense of what happens to us, there will be times when life’s events remain a mystery. We may not like it, but that doesn’t mean living with the mystery is somehow unfaithful.

Here’s another biblical message:

God Will Never Leave Us Or Forsake Us

Ours is a God who desires a personal relationship with us. Not some cosmic clockwinder who gets the world working and then heads to Disneyland on vacation. Speaking to the Israelites on their entry into Israel. Speaking to his disciples the night before his betrayal. Speaking to the early Christian community trying to live out their faith before Jesus’ return: God will never leave or forsake us. Why? Because of who God is, the name revealed to us at Christmas: God is “Immanuel” – God with us. (Matthew 1.23)

The Christmas Promise

baby jesus in mangerGod so loved us that he became one of us; Our heavenly Father took on human flesh and lived among us as one of us. That’s the power behind this incredible gift of God in the flesh; what the church calls the “incarnation.” Author and Pastor Martin Marty wrote movingly about this in the Lutheran Magazine several years ago:

Tucked into that long Latin word (Incarnation) is a short syllable – carn. When carn shows up in the dictionary it usually signals wild, messy, ungodly things. Carnage: as in the slaughter of flesh. Carnal: as in the lust of the flesh. The incarnation tells us God is involved with carn, with the wild and messy, but not ungodly things that go with our flesh. When we suffer, we know that God identifies with us, having suffered in our carn, in our flesh. When we are tempted, we take strength from knowing that so was the “true God from true God” incarnate in Jesus. When we die, among the tears are God’s tears. When good things happen to us, we rejoice knowing that God rejoices with us.

God has sent us a savior who knows us and who cares so very deeply for us. He walks with us through all the joys and sorrows this life has for us. This gift transforms our lives with healing and peace. It makes us whole when we feel broken. It reunites us with God and each other when we are estranged. And it gives us hope when we are weeping, that the darkness we experience won’t last. For with the psalmist, we can proclaim:

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Ps 30.5)

Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have a promise that is sure: The power of God’s love is stronger than the power of death. As a result, God will turn our tears into joy. As we listen carefully to what Scripture really says we can know God’s character, we can trust God’s plan for us, and we can hold onto God’s promises. Amen

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