Making Friends and Changing Lives

I’ve been reading the classic novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck considered it to be his masterpiece, and many others agreed. It’s set in the years that span the turning of the 19th and 20th centuries though it’s based on Genesis 4, the Cain and Abel story. But that’s not why I mention it. I mention it because of the description the narrator in the book gives to one of the characters, specifically his mother, Olive. He says Olive had a distinctive way of dealing with facts that didn’t fit into her notion of how things were. She “obliterated them by refusing to believe in them.” These “nonexistent realities” included such varied things as airplanes and World War I.  She had no place in her thoughts for either, that is, until circumstances forced her to confront both.

I mention Olive and her way of dealing with airplanes because we have a similar way of dealing with one of our external realities. For us it’s people. We have long standing close friendships in Jesup. We like our friends. We enjoy being with them in our Sunday Morning Connection Groups. We meet them for lunch or for shopping. We have our circle. And then someone new arrives. They sit next to us in our Bible Study group. We talk about work, the kids, and then get around to the lesson. We’re friendly. Then church is over, we head for lunch, and those people become for us one of Olive’s external realities. They no longer exist. We go on with our circle of friends and the newcomers (what were their names again?) fade. When you meet your friends for lunch you don’t think of inviting them. You don’t call them to see how they are doing or to say hello.  They come back, a time or two, some for a good while even, and then they simply fade away. They’re an airplane or something else faraway and unreal. An external to our group reality.

When Jesus chose his disciples he chose them “that they might be with him.”  When two curious seekers asked him where he lived he said, “Come see for yourself,” and invited them in for the day. He later said to them, “I now call you friends.” Jesus’ strategy for changing the world was to pull people close and make them his friends. It’s our strategy too. But you have to help. You have to open your friendship circle to new people. They cannot remain left out. You must intentionally pull them close.

I once heard someone say, “No one comes to church to get involved but no one stays in church unless they do.” Involved in what? Ministries, making a difference in some way. But most importantly, friendships. It’s up to you to make friends for Christ’s sake.

Baptists, America, and Freedom

It’s July, the month of cookouts and trips to the beach. It’s the month of sunburn and gnats and remembering that winter wasn’t really so bad after all. It’s the month of patriotism and fireworks and celebrating America and independence. It’s remembering our heritage, where we came from, and why we came in the first place. We forget easily.

In the 17th century Pilgrims and Puritans came to America seeking freedom, specifically, the freedom to worship and serve God as their minds and consciences directed. In England they had faced persecution and even death because they had begun to read the Scriptures for themselves and to question the established order, the Church of England. They founded their colonies, built their churches, and then clamped down like a vise on any who would dissent from their views. The persecuted became persecutors.

One of the persecuted was Roger Williams. Williams came to America with the Puritans. Once here his study of Scripture and his disgust at how land was confiscated from Native Americans brought him into sharp disagreement with his fellow colonials. Roger Williams, the Puritan, was on his way to becoming a Baptist. Eventually he did become fully a Baptist in his thinking and beliefs and was invited for this cause to forever leave Massachusetts. Williams left and founded a new colony, Rhode Island, by buying land from the natives there. Throughout his life he would be the Englishman the natives trusted most. He founded the city of Providence and with it Williams started the First Baptist Church of Providence, which was also, truly, the First Baptist Church of America. In Rhode Island the government was limited to making laws about “civil things” and was forbidden from any restriction on religion. Williams believed in “soul liberty”, that each person was free to believe and think as he or she willed. Both these ideas became strong beliefs which would be woven into the fabric of what it is to be a Baptist. As a result Rhode Island became a haven in America for Baptists, Quakers, and even Jews, all of whom were welcomed by Williams. It’s not that he didn’t have strong opinions. He did. He argued vehemently against the teachings of the Quakers, publishing pamphlets in which he sought to expose their errors. But the Quakers remained free to practice and to argue back to their hearts content. You could say that America truly became America with Roger Williams.

We need to recover Williams spirit. America is a place of freedom where the government should not interfere with or limit faith no matter who’s it is, mine or my neighbor’s. Government must not limit nor prefer one faith over another, mine nor my neighbor’s. Besides, the Good News of Jesus is truth that has the Holy Spirit behind it. It needs no other power, no other help, than God’s and for his church to tell it to the world.

How To Go On Summer Vacation

        The calendar has flipped to June.  Summer.  The weather was ahead of the calendar by a few weeks.  The kids are out of school.  The teachers are catching up on their sleep.  And you are probably heading out of town.  Some of you we will see back when the weather cools, whenever that happens in south Georgia.  It’s time for time away, time off, time to do what you please, and time, hopefully, for rest and renewal rather than time to burn your candle down even faster.

God is good with vacations.  He built vacation time and rest time into his plans for you.  There is the weekly rest he calls a Sabbath.  By the way, “Sabbath” is from a Hebrew word that means “to stop”. Routinely we stop our work and do something that isn’t work.  We engage in pleasures.  We rest. We celebrate. We worship.  We do so because all the work in all the world needing to be done is.  It is finished.  We can finally rest.  God built other rests into our calendar.  The Jewish calendar is full of celebrations and gathers.  Three of the annual celebrations required travel: Passover, Tabernacle, and Pentecost.  The Feast of Tabernacles is especially interesting to me. The whole nation was required to for a week, move out of their homes and build little shelters to live in for a week.  The whole nation was told to go camping.   There’s more. There is the year of Jubilees every fiftieth year when the clock was reset on everything.  Debts were to be cancelled, prisoners released, land went back to its original owners.  Everything was the way it was supposed to be.  Happening every fifty years each person could see at least once in their lifetime, what God’s world was supposed to look like.

Jesus also seems to think rest is important.  When you study the life of Jesus, looking particularly at his travels, its interesting to note that  at least three times during the three years of his ministry he left Israel and spent time in Gentile areas.  Why would he do this when his ministry was focused primarily on the Jews?  The answer appears to be rest.  There are other places in the Bible where we see Jesus focus on rest.  In Mark 6:31 we are told there were so many people coming and going constantly to see Jesus that he and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat.  Jesus tells them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”  Yes, there are needs.  Yes, there is a world to save.  But sometimes you have to go away and get some rest so you have something to give it.

Here’s how to take a vacation. Go by yourselves, you and those closest to you. Go to a quiet place.  Go with Jesus.  Do not leave Jesus behind.  The goal is not escape.  The goal is rest.  The goal is recreation.  That last word, how did you read it? Recreation as play and laughter and fun or recreation as renewing and rebuilding and remaking.  There is a reason they are the same word.  But to really recreate you have to take Jesus with you. You pray and you are thankful and you enjoy and you find this is what God wanted you to do all along.

Messages From The World Around Us

Barb and I have been talking with a young man who is struggling. He’s questioning everything. Struggling to believe there’s a god, struggling even to find a reason to keep living. Recently he told us the world was a “beautiful hell” which he couldn’t wait to escape. I tried to help him understand what’s behind both the beauty of the world and the trouble in it. The following was my answer to him. I’m sharing it hoping someone else might be helped as well.

The world is beautiful. And the world is full of hurt. We can in one moment be stunned by its awesomeness and in the next be staggered by its awfulness. Both of these experiences convey a message to us, if we have the eyes with which to see and the ears with which to hear. The beauty is telling us there is something out there that loves us and wants us to have joy, peace even. Think about it. Things don't have to be beautiful. Oranges and pineapples don't have to taste good to induce us to eat. A pain in the stomach would work just as well. But they do taste good. There are so many other joys too. Sunsets, for example. They don’t have to be so stunning. But they are. There does not have to be the nearly infinite variety of plants and birds and animals. But there are. The world is rich with vibrant color, texture, and flavor when nothing requires it to be so. The presence of so much extravagant and unnecessary beauty in the world is saying something to us, if we listen. It’s saying something wants us to enjoy, to have a rich life. Something cares about our happiness and joy.

But the world is full of hurt and pain and that sends us a message, too. The message that sends is that something has gone wrong. We experience pain at the brokenness around us because we know deep within it's not supposed to be like this. That idea, it’s not supposed to be like this, is a familiar thought to most of us. We think this because somewhere in our souls we have a memory of how things are supposed to be. When we hear a clunk in an engine, or see a wrong answer to a math problem, we know something is wrong because we have heard what an engine is supposed to sound like and we have seen what a right answer looks like. This is the way we distinguish what is supposed to be from what isn’t supposed to be. It’s the same with the world. We know its not supposed to be this way because we have seen the way it is supposed to be. And we feel pain and brokenness at the difference. The fact that we feel this pain and know it's supposed to be better than this is another proof there is something more out there. Something, someone, is grieving at the hurt and brokenness of things and we can’t help but to grieve, too.

What did this something, then, do? He sent Jesus to fix things. Jesus came and absorbed the wrong (sin, if you like) into himself. He did both life and death the way it’s supposed to be. He loved his enemies, even died for them while praying for their forgiveness. He absorbed death into himself. His resurrection shows that. He rose, fully alive in every way, giving us a picture of what we will one day be with him and what the world will be like, too.

So What's Love?

She was one of those people who came up to you and just started talking about things you don’t usually tell strangers. In the first moments of our short conversation I learned she was divorced and I learned why. Her now ex-husband chose to walk a different path. She told me he was an excellent father and a great person and she decided to support him in his new direction. What she said next made me realize she’d figured out I was a preacher. The only hint I’d given about my identity was her hearing me say I wanted to get a new shirt and tie for Easter. After explaining she was helping her ex-husband on his new life she said, “THAT’s what Christianity is about. Jesus was all about love. If you go to church and listen to MAN (she said this word as if it had a terrible flavor) you WILL get messed up. You just have to love people.” And then she walked away.

I wanted to say, “Okay, I agree. Christianity is about love. But what’s love to you?” At this point all I could see was her back as she was marching away. I’m guessing her response would have been something about supporting people in their decisions, being helpful to people no matter what. If that was her thinking, I can agree, to a point. Love is about support. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s about rescue.

What if her husband had something called Body Integrity Identity Disorder? It’s a rare but relevant recognized mental illness. Go ahead and look it up. Or what if her daughter was dying due to anorexia? Would it be loving to support a daughters decision not to eat? Very often, love isn’t about agreeing or standing along side someone. It’s about rescuing. And that’s the kind of love Christianity is about.

Jesus was on a rescue mission. A mental and spiritual disturbance we have named Sin was twisting and warping humankind into false thinking and false identities. We needed to be loved back into reality. So Jesus took on humanity. His humanity went far beyond skin. He took on human nature too, but with this difference. His human nature was a real human nature not a sin distorted one. He was genuinely a human being. Thus he lived. Thus he died. For us. Those words, “for us,” means he was doing something that needed to be done by us but since we were incapable of doing it, he did in our place. We needed to take on this malignant force. We couldn’t. Jesus could. Jesus did.

On the cross he defeated Sin and it’s evil companion, Death. The victory was won there. The resurrection was the proof of the victory. The world has not been the same since. This is what Christianity is about and this is what love is. God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He did more than support us. He rescued us. Then he sent us to be rescuers too, to “snatch [people] from the fire and save them” (Jude 23). That means one of the things we must do is tell the truth. In love, of course.