From Summer Malaise to Missional Motivation!

dog days 1

from malaise …

Malaise – a condition of general bodily weakness or discomfort; a vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness and lethargy.

Something happens to many of us in the dead heat of summer. We sometimes call this season the “dog days of summer” or the “summer malaise.” We slow down. We try our best to stay cool, near water, under shade, or tucked inside rooms with well-conditioned air. It is hard to think, hard to focus, and hard to move and stay motivated. Churches experiences similar things. Summer attendance in worship wanes while people travel and engage in other summer activities. Ministries continue but with irregular schedules and often less energy and excitement. How might the church turn some of this summer malaise into motivation? Taking some insights from others in the business world, here are a few suggestions (thanks, Chris Myers):

Revisit Expectations and Goals

This year we have set some big ones at FUMC Graham. The first is our “Removing Barriers Campaign.” We are currently in the middle of one of the biggest renovations of our church in decades, seeking to make our ministry facility more welcoming, accessible, and modern. A final push to complete the first stages of this project is coming soon, including some exciting news about how to meet some of the financial contingencies that have arisen. Stay tuned for more! Secondly, our goal of revamping our website, streaming our services, and reaching more people in the larger community for Christ remains our central vision and mission. This fall, stay tuned for new ways to connect through small groups, bible studies, LIFE groups, and even a possible off campus gathering for unchurched seekers.

Stay Focused on the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff

Focus. That is the key word. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through love and service. Our vision for how to do that in Alamance County is by becoming a loving and diverse community meeting the real needs of our neighbors through spirit-filled worship, inter-generational discipleship, and caring service. It is not complicated, but we can and do get distracted. The public square and our national discourse has become shrill and divisive. Violence, terror and fear continue to threaten our lives and, more importantly, our higher ideals of love, forgiveness, and unity. The world has never needed the Church more – called as we are to witness to a different way of being, loving and serving. Now is a time to stay focused on our calling, our purpose, and our Lord.

Staying focused and keeping our eyes on the larger mission and Gospel goals of God’s kingdom also requires a third thing …

strength to muscle through.

... to missional motivation!

… to missional motivation!

Fortunately, our strength comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. Hear these wise words from Proverbs 4:20-27: “My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them escape from y our sight; keep them within your heart … Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. Do this and you will thrive. Do this, and you may also turn summer malaise into missional motivation!

Harsh Words (sermon 3 on Job)

Remembering the Context

job friendsThis sermon is the third in our series on Job – Weathering the Storm. First – lets recap a bit. Do any of you remember the scene in Job chapter one and two? The action is fast, furious, and unrelenting:

  • First messenger comes – Sabeans have attacked Job’s field hands who were watching the oxen (500) and donkeys (500) … they killed the servants and stole the livestock. While that messenger was still talking …
  • Second messenger – a bolt of lightning, fire from heaven, stuck Job’s sheep (7,000) and all the servants watching them. All are reported dead. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Third messenger – Chaldeans set up 3 companies and raided Job’s camels (3,000) and killed the field hands. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Fourth messenger – Job’s 7 sons and 3 daughters were in the home of his eldest son eating. Strong wind hit the house and it collapsed. All dead. While Job is still processing all this news …
  • His body is struck all over with severe sores and he is reduced to scraping himself with shards of pottery.

Place yourself for a moment in Job’s shoes. Who in the world can weather that kind of a storm?

Bible Thumping in Job

To add insult to multiple injuries, the three friends show up – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and after sitting shiva with him for 7 days and nights, they proceed to do a little Bible thumping. Anyone heard that expression before? It has been described as the act of aggressively and relentlessly promoting your understanding of Christian faith and practice to convince someone to believe and think the way you do on the matter. Listen to how one friend warms up for his version of Bible thumping: “If you were truly wise, would you sound so much like a windbag, belching hot air … I’ve a thing or two to tell you, so listen up! I’m letting you in on my views …” (Eliphaz in Job 15, the Msg) After all this windy, judgmental, and unhelpful talk from Job’s friends, it is Job’s turn to respond, and what comes out of his mouth might surprise you.

Praying with Raw Emotion

Hear again Job’s harsh and anguished prayer:

God has surely worn me out … his anger tears me and afflicts me; he slashes at me with his teeth … I was at rest, but he shattered me, seized me by the back of the neck, dashed me into pieces; he raised me up for his target. His archers surround me; he cuts my kidneys open without pity and doesn’t care, pours my gall on the ground, burst me open over and over, runs against me like a strong man. I’ve sewed rough cloth over my skin and buried my dignity in the dust. My face is red from crying, and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids. But there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure. (Job 16)

Harsh words. Lets put aside for a moment the notion of Job’s incredible “patience.” Lets talk about how angry he was. How frustrated. How anguished. How much in pain he was. Words cannot describe the depths of his anguish, but he gave it a good try … and when the words came, WOW … they came, pouring forth in waves of utter agony.

crucifixionEver thought about praying like this before? This is an example of one type of prayer taken straight from Scripture. And if you are ever afraid to pray like Job, might you consider praying like Jesus? Yes, Jesus taught his disciples the “Our Father” prayer in Matthew, but he also taught us to pray in the way he lived and died. Listen to how Jesus prays in the moments before he takes his last breath – with raw emotion from the depths of his suffering: “From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 46 At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:45-46 – Jesus’ words were the first line of Psalm 22, one of many psalms of lament in the Bible’s prayer book)

One thing we all need to learn from Job and from Jesus is that we need our prayers to get more honest. Fortunately, we have a long tradition of prayers that are offered up in the midst of suffering, trial, and despair. They are called prayers of lament. You can find them in the book of Lamentations and in the Psalms. They are prayers that express a cry of need in a context of crisis. They are prayers that appeal for divine help in moments of great distress. They are raw. They are real. They are honest. If you want a real relationship with someone, it has to be a relationship based on authenticity, honesty, and love. Should that be any less true of our relationship with God? Job, among other things, wants to teach the church how to lament again.

Learning to Lament

The best way to learn how to lament is to just do it, so lets give it a try. Some can’t bring themselves to say the words they feel. That is OK. When in doubt, just start by praying Scripture. Let saints and sinners who have gone before us give voice to the things we fear to name:

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
3 Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
5 But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
6 Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)

There you have it. A Prayer? Yes. Heresy? No. Harsh words? Absolutely. Biblical words? Certainly. But notice something else about most lament prayers. They start with where we are in the midst of suffering, but they almost always begin to turn just a little near the end. They begin to point us toward something better … something beyond … something on the other side of our pain and despair. That something has a name in our Christian faith. It is called HOPE.

Christian “Get-Back-Upedness”

get back upDr. Kavin Rowe at Duke Divinity School has written and taught on the subject of resiliency. In a recent post, he recalls experiencing the song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba on a trip to Europe. The song, which went on to become an international hit, had one simple phrase that everyone seemed to know. The refrain keeps people all over the world coming back for more: I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never going to keep me down! … Getting knocked down is as basic as being human — life just does this to us — and so is the desire to get back up. The legend of the phoenix, for example, is a story about resilience: when the phoenix dies, it is reborn out of its own ashes. All human beings are knocked down, and all long to get back up.”

Resiliency is the ability to get back up again … and again … and again … and again. Again, as Kavin puts it: “Resilience isn’t, however, the typical quality we ascribe to leaders. We think instead of charisma, intellectual prowess, rhetorical skill, political savvy, financial success or something along these lines. Christ shaped leadership is resilient leadership … and it is grounded hope in God’s permanent faithfulness. It is not inner strength or self-confidence.” NO. When we get knocked down, even to the point of death … we still hope in the one who conquered sin, death, and the grave. Resilience is not toughness … is the response of hope. Kill hope and resilience will die with it. Kavin goes on to suggest three recalibrations that are needed to help cultivate resiliency among Christian leaders and followers of Jesus Christ:

  • First, we need to acknowledge that profound difficulty is a part of life. Contrary to popular opinion, we not entitled to a good life.
  • Second: establish sites of hopefulness in the midst of despair (like here in worship, like AA meetings, Life Groups, and spiritual friendships fostered in Christian community)
  • Third: Resiliency is best learned in community – it is not a matter for us to tackle alone as individuals.

Kavin’s insights go a long way towards grounding believers in what I might call the Christian “get-back-upedness” of our faith. We get back up again as followers of Jesus, not because of our resolve or strength, but because of our hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, even when we are surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

One song I have used over the past 20 years of my volunteer work in jails and prisons is an old Gospel song titled Victory is Mine. I close with it today, but share it with you because of where I have experienced this song’s power the most – in prison. In other words, in circumstances that have a lot of evidence contrary to hopefulness. Every time I sing the refrain, I imagine the many inmates who have become friends and brothers in Christ. I have witnessed how this song and our worship together creates a space for hope to endure in the midst of alienation, self-doubt, unanswered calls from family and friends, and fear about never being physically free again in this life. Even when one is surrounded by nothing but concrete walls, electronic doors, and nothing but time that could be used to wallow in self-pity, space can be created for Christian hope to flicker, burn, and shine in the darkness.

Victory is mine, victory is mine, victory today is mine

I told satan, get thee behind,

Victory today is mine.

Joy is mine … Peace is mine …

Hope is mine, hope is mine, hope today is mine.

I told satan, get thee behind,

Hope today is mine. 

 

So-Called Comfort (sermon 2 on Job)

When Friends Come

job friendsWhen the going gets tough in your life … who shows up? What do they do? What do they say?

“When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home – they wept loudly … each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat on the ground seen days and nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw he was in excruciating pain.” (Job 2:12; the word for excruciating means “increasing in greatness”)

It is called “sitting shiva” – the seven day period of mourning for Jewish families; this lasts for seven days when family members traditionally gather in a home and receive visitors. At the funeral, mourners traditionally wear an outer garment or ribbon that was torn at the funeral in a ritual known as keriah.

Here is one of the first things I want us to hear from Job’s story and ours – especially when we or someone we know is in the midst of a storm. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says that when one member of the body of Christ suffers – we all suffer. When one member rejoices we all rejoice. That means that as followers of Jesus Christ, when our brother or sister is in pain – we come. I don’t care how we do it … but we need to do it and keep on doing it. Followers of Jesus show up – and yes, if they are Methodists, they bring casseroles … and they also sit, laugh, cry, talk, read, and pray together. Sometimes, they just sit together. It is called the ministry of presence.

When Silence is Golden

silence goldenIn the midst of such storms, we often crave silence. English poet, Thomas Carlyle, once wrote: “As the Swiss inscription says: sprecfien ist silbern, schweigen ist golden (speech is sliver, silence is golden) … or as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.” We love to fill the air, the cable feeds, the web, and our social media streams with words – LOTS of WORDS – but sometimes silence is …  well, silence is just better. Here are a few other quotes you may have heard about silence. MLK JR: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Or how about this one from Mother Teresa: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Sometimes, silence truly is golden – especially when there are no words that can touch the depths of our pain and grief.

In Job’s case, the silence was golden compared to the round robin of words that were about to be unleashed on him by his “so called friends.” And the words that followed the silence? I doubt they could be called silver, for when they came, they came more like burnt ash, flaming darts, and heaping piles of disdain thrown atop Job’s already sky-high pile of despair and confusion.

When We Crave Words

blah blahIn grief we sometimes also crave words: Robert Louis Stevenson: “The correction of silence is what kills; when you know you have transgressed, and your friend says nothing, and avoids your eye.” Aldous Huxley: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. “

Job sings the blues.
Eliphaz takes it upon himself to correct Job and to overcome his despair: “Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born ……then Eliphaz responded: who can hold back words?” (Job 3:1, 4:1-2) How often do we do this in the church? We hear someone say something we disagree with in Sunday School or a small group study, and we immediately make it our main purpose to set them straight … help them think right … which usually means, help them see things the way we do.

Round and round the friends go – Round 1 (3:1-14) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job), At the end of round 1, Job states emphatically: You, however, are plasterers of lies; ineffective healers, all of you. (13:4). / Round 2 (15-21) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job) / Round 3 (22-31) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job) … and then Job. At the end of the three rounds of Job’s so-called comfort from friends, we read this: “These three men stopped answering Job because he thought he was righteous. Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite from the clan of Ram was angry, angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with these three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked. Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.” (Job 32:1-5)

When We Defend

comfortHere is the thing we need to stop doing when others are experiencing a storm. Stop defending God. We don’t need to defend God … God needs no defense. If we need to defend someone, then defend those who suffer. We need to stand with, defend, encourage, pray, weep, and comfort those who are experiencing excruciating pain. Let me say it again just to be clear. Defend, encourage, and stand with those who suffer – period. That is one of the key things we should learn from the book of Job.

I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “The friends are in Job’s way. They are in God’s way. They are trying to insert themselves between the silence of God and the one for whom the silence is intended, and in the end their interpretations are more painful to Job than the silence itself.”

Romans 8:28 is a go to verse for many who experience storms. It doesn’t answer all the questions that we raise in times of crisis, but it does offer comfort. More familiar translations say: “All things work together for good to them that love God” (KJV). But that doesn’t get the Greek quite right. God is the subject of this sentence, not all the “things” .. not all the “stuff” … not all the calamity that may happen to us. The CEV reads: “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.” Tony Campolo once gave a better translation of this passage when he said: “God is at work cooperating with those who love Him, to bring about good.” God doesn’t manufacture the storms and does not sit on high looking for whom to smite next … but God can take any circumstance, any pain, any amount of suffering and somehow … over time … with large doses of grace, patience, love, and mercy – turn it to good for all who love, trust, and wait upon the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Weathering the Storm (sermon blogging … intro to a new series on Job)

mississippi floodWhen the Storm Comes

Sometimes a picture says it all. This is Mississippi, but it could be anywhere, USA. This woman is carrying clothing out of a flooded house. She is wading through standing, muddy water that is under everything, and yet she has not thrown up her arms in despair. She is doing what she can … grabbing clothes and items that can still be used. It is a picture of perseverance in the aftermath of a storm.

Alabama tornadoIn another picture, a woman goes through what is left of her home, standing beside a bed that no longer has bedroom walls around it. It was the aftermath of a tornado that had swept through Alabama. What was left to do? Give up? Instead, she decided to sort through what remained. It is another picture of how one person weathered a devastating storm.

I grew up in tornado country – Oklahoma. One of the things we were taught on a regular basis was how to weather a storm – particularly, a funnel cloud coming your direction. Here is the question I want us to wrestle with today for a few more moments. The storm will one day come for us. The question is, “how will we weather it?”

Starting Fresh

What do you know about the book of Job? What questions does it raise for you? There are many, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do some insist Job was patient? (James 5:11) These are all good questions, but I want to suggest we suspend our questions and thoughts about this book so we can give Job a fresh hearing over these next weeks. We need to hear Job on Job’s terms … not on ours. So to do that, let me share just a few things that I believe will be important.

  1. Ask the right questions. Instead of starting with our laundry list of questions about suffering, pain, and the big “Why” questions related to calamity, lets first listen to the questions the book of Job wants to ask us. Along the way, it may also be helpful to identify the questions Job never intended to answer. For example, did Job really exist? Perhaps, but does the answer really matter in terms of the truth the story of Job tells? Not really. Is the message of Job true? This may be the better question, and I believe the answer is an unqualified yes. This story begins like many other stories that are trying to teach us something about life, about God, and about our relationship with God.  “Once upon a time” … or in this case … “A man in the land of Uz was named Job.”
  2. Notice the prose bookends and the large amount of poetry in-between. This is not a minor detail. The poetry in this book makes up more than 90% of the story. Let me share with you one definition of poetry that may be important for understanding why the book is written this way and not another. Poetrythe measured language of emotion. Lofty thought or impassioned feeling expressed in imaginative words. When you think about it … it makes sense why Job is poetic. What is more complicated, more confusing, more frustrating, or more emotional than the experience of suffering? There is great biblical truth and insight right here … before we even engage the story in detail. Suffering is beyond words … so we are actually following a biblical impulse when we turn to songs, to lyrics, to poetry, and to artistic verse to help us give voice to things that are beyond our comprehension. I love the blues. Job reminds me that God invented the blues. Incidentally, that means that when you are experiencing deep pain or suffering, you may need to find yourself a song (I have one for you today, but hang on … that is coming a little later so keep reading). Why turn to poetry? Because poetry helps us to wrestle with the hard questions that defy our futile attempts to give simple, pat answers. I love the way Lee Schott puts it: “the questions of Job are questions that lurk at the heart of our faith: about storms, faithfulness, and the character of God.”

Righteousness and Suffering on Trial

The first two chapters of Job are set up like an ancient court trial, complete with a clearly innocent and righteous person falsely accused, a prosecuting attorney (ha satan … The designated Accuser [the Msg], the Adversary, the Satan), the judge, and the various witnesses and competing voices that each have their own perspective on Job’s guilt or innocence.

If the story’s premise sounds too odd and other worldly to you … lets not forget that we today continue to put suffering and righteousness on trial today … all the time. Take AIDS. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, many Christian leaders stated emphatically that AIDS was evidence of God’s judgement on sexual sin. As one famous evangelical TV personality once put it (I’ll leave out the name to protect the guilty): “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.“ This kind of thinking has not gone away. Some other Christian leaders said similar things about the Ebola crisis a few years ago … it was God’s punishment, for immorality, for a divided Jerusalem, for … well you name it. These are the kinds of voices we will be hearing in the book of Job … from people like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. Remember this – when we do the same – when we paste simple prose answers on top of complicated questions about suffering and pain, we are imitating ha satan – the Accuser, not God.

We still judge suffering. We also still judge righteousness. Here are some actual quotes from various preachers and Christian leaders: “Poverty is from the devil and God wants all people prosperous.”“If you live as a blessing to others God will bless you abundantly.” What people often hear in this statement is its opposite. If your life feels more like a curse, does that mean you are NOT living right? The book of Job doesn’t just take on contemporary televangelists … Job also takes on other priests and prophets from Israel … other thoughts and ideas that are already in the Bible. Take this verse from Deuteronomy 11: “Pay attention! I am setting blessing and curse before you right now; the blessing if you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I am giving your right now, but the curse if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s commandments and stray from the path that I am giving you today by following other gods.” Both Job and Deuteronomy are God’s word … but clearly we have to take the whole witness of Scripture into account when we step to the edge of the chasm that marks the end of our understanding and the beginning of something beyond.

The BIG Question

carrot and stickI am sure you have heard of the proverbial donkey motivated by either the carrot or stick? If you want to motivate the donkey, you need to use a carrot (promise of reward) or a stick (threat of punishment). This is the primary question Job wants to ask us as people of faith. Is our faith, trust, and service to God only present because we fear punishment or anticipate reward? Do we just serve God because we desire blessings? Do we just obey God because we are afraid of punishments or have a fear of hell? This is at the HEART of the big question in Job, and make no mistake about it … it is HUGE. Everything hinges on the answer. Why? Because a real relationship of love cannot be founded on fear (avoiding the stick). Because a real relationship of selfless love cannot be founded on self-interest (what’s in it for me … the carrot).

The BIG question is found directly in the text: Does Job revere God for nothing? (Job 1:9) Think about that question. Why are you a Christian? Wait … don’t answer too quickly. Why Jesus? Why Church? Why pray? Why study scripture? Why serve others in Jesus’ name? To make it pain: what’s in it for you?

This insight gives birth to an odd, but wonderful truth: The book of Job is about love. Love between God and humanity. Love that cannot be reduced to carrots or sticks. Love that goes deeper, that means more, that burns within our souls come hell or high-water. Scripture often refers to the image of marriage to describe God’s relationship with God’s people. In the New Testament, we envision Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride. To use that metaphor, we might consider Job as a poetic exploration of our marriage covenant and our baptismal vows made with God, the lover of our souls. Do we freely and heartily yield all things to God’s pleasure and disposal? Do we love God in sickness and in health? In good times and in bad? For better or for worse? So long as we shall live? THAT is a big question. Does this mean God doesn’t want to bless us? No. But a relationship based on our desired “bottom line” is not love. Does this mean that there are not consequences for disobedience and sin in the world? No. But a relationship based on fear of punishment is not true love.

Love – true love – has to be an act of free will. It can’t be based on coercion, fear of punishment, or pure self-interest. Does this one insight answer all the other pressing questions around suffering in the book of Job? No … but it does do one thing … it invites us to think about this story differently. It invites us to see Job as a love story about a love that can endure, hold on, and persevere, even in the face of the greatest storms life might unleash on us.

My Soul has been Anchored

The storm will come for us – literal storms, spiritual storms, relational storms, you name it. How many of you have experienced a devastating storm of one kind or another in your life? How many of you are going through a major storm right now? I don’t have a lot of answers for why that may be happening to you (and neither does Job), but I can tell you one thing. Get you a song. Find you some poetry. One my “go to” songs is “My Soul has been Anchored.” The author is unknown – but the experience that he or she gives voice to is known by many. The lyrics echo a passage from Hebrews 6:17-19: “In the same way, God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose … we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

My Soul Has Been Anchored
Though the storms keep on raging in my life, And sometimes it’s hard to tell the night from day; Still that hope that lies within is reassured, As I keep my eyes upon the distant shore, I know He’ll lead me safely to that blessed place He has prepared.

But if the storms don’t cease, and if the winds keep on blowing … my soul has been anchored in the Lord.

Oh, I realize that sometimes in this life, we gonna be tossed, By the waves and the currents that seem so fierce. But in the Word of God, I’ve got an anchor, And it keeps me steadfast and unmovable, Despite the tides.

The pillars may roll, the breakers may dash, I shall not sway because He holds me fast; So dark the day, clouds in the sky, I know it’s alright ’cause Jesus is mine

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