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

Goodness is Stronger than Evil

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We live in interesting times. No one could have guessed that the summer of 2015 goodness is strongerwould bring a different kind of heat to so much of our common life and discourse in our local communities and nation. I have an AP app (Associated Press) on my smart phone that sends me a short blurb with every event deemed newsworthy. Part of me has wanted to turn that app notification off this summer just because of the content that has been bleeping onto my screen over the past few months: the Charleston Church Shooting on June 17th, the death of Sandra Bland in police custody in Texas on July 13th, the Chattanooga shooting on July 16th, the Louisiana shooting on July 23rd, just to name a few. The presence of such repeated, senseless violence and trauma is unnerving and disconcerting. It can bring out the best in us as human beings; it also often brings out the worst.

In the midst of a public square that is already electric with communal fear and suspicion, we have also experienced controversial and historic events that have been received with very mixed and divided opinions: Supreme Court Decisions on same-sex marriage on June 26th, lethal injection on June 29th, and Health Care Subsidies June 25th; a South Carolina House vote to remove the Confederate flag from the State House; and a local debate around Graham’s confederate soldier statue in front of the downtown Courthouse. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of a church that had responded to this recent climate by turning one of their Sunday School rooms into a storeroom for packaged meals for their membership. The majority of the church is convinced that a great tribulation is around the corner and they don’t want to be caught unawares. Though such a reaction is likely to prompt dismissive laughter from most, it did cause me to ask a more important question about the church: What should be our response to all that is happening in our world, our nation, and our local communities?

I am not sure I have the answer to that question, but I think it is a question worth asking and reflecting on together as the Body of Christ. I do know that there are a few things that I would like to see more of in our common life and witness: 1) Prayer for all people, and especially those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2); 2) Patience, with one another, and especially with those with whom we disagree (Proverbs 14:29); 3) Forgiveness – (Matthew 6:15; 18:21); 4) Honorable and Edifying Speech (James 1:19), and 5) Proactive Action (Micah 6:8).

In recent days I have been in conversation with area pastors and churches (across lines of race, ethnicity, and denomination) around some of these shared concerns. I am not sure where such conversations may lead us in terms of proactive action, but I am certain that Christians of good faith can and should come together to witness to a better way, a higher good, and a deeper compassion and love. After all, we are followers of Jesus.

10 Things I Pray

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10 Things I’m praying for Graham and Alamance County residents right now:

heritage poster

Flyers posted this week for a rally on Saturday, July 18

1. That the cross would be the central symbol and heritage around which we rally and unite (1 Corinthians 2:2; John 12:32)

2. That the Holy Spirit would fan flames of righteous indignation in us for the things that outrage God (things like: sowing discord, Proverbs 6:19; turning aside from the needy, Isaiah 10:1-4; giving glory to things or people other than God, Romans 1:22-23, Jeremiah 9:23-24; injustice and oppression, Zechariah 7:8-12).

 

3. That those of us who are called to “take up the cross” would be willing to die first to our persecution complex, which diminishes and devalues the old and contemporary saints that have and continue to suffer real persecution (Matthew 16:24)

 

4. That more of us could learn to take a breath and fret not – it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)

 

5. That we can learn to speak the WHOLE truth to one another. These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, 17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.” (Zechariah 8:16-17).

     That means, at the very least, that part of our heritage includes both hate and love; both slavery and fried chicken. If the part we are celebrating is love, then I am not sure why we choose rallies over real conversations. I, for one, believe the rebel battle flag over a Georgia statehouse is a completely different issue than a statue in front of the Graham Courthouse – but some conversation is needed here. A lot less heat and a lot more patience and honest listening. Such a conversation might reveal that many who wave the flag are doing it more because of their teenage nostalgia for the rebel spirit nurtured in them through pop culture phenomena like the TV show, the Dukes of Hazzard and the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd (I grew up watching one and listening to the other, and I am now starting to think so did many others).
Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln

It may also mean that Graham residents need to consider honoring all of our history – which means finding a way to also commemorate, honor, and celebrate people like Wyatt Outlaw, an Alamance County veteran of 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Calvary of the Union Army and one of the first Black Constables in Graham. (I may also need to find a copy of Shuttle and Plow, by a former history professor at Elon to learn more about such history)

 

6. That each of us, regardless of our race, religion, or creed would be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” (James 1:19)

 

7. That while we are debating and fretting over fabric and concrete, we might remember to collectively get down on our knees and pray for the families of Sandra Bland, the fallen Marines and a shot police officer in Chattanooga, the many children and families in our community that suffer abuse and neglect, and the city and county leaders, firemen, police, and emergency workers who regularly work hard to serve our community on a daily basis. (1 Timothy 2:1: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone …“)

 

8. That we might guard our tongues – avoiding speech, labels, stereotypes, and virtually any words that seek to hurt rather than heal (James 1:26-27).

 

9. That we might collectively seek peace despite our differences, always seeking the good of the other – especially the ones with the “other” opinions. (1 Thessalonians 5:14: Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”

 

10. That we might unite across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and orientation to seek, yearn for, pray for, and work for “the welfare of the city … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)

How Pope Francis could help the next General Conference of the UMC

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Pope Francis doveA recent article in “The Atlantic” grabbed my attention. Any writer or magazine editor worth their salt knows that well worded titles and front page blurbs can do that. Well, the strategy worked on me. The May edition of “The Atlantic” led with cover line teasers like: “Can Starbucks Save the Middle Class?,” “Teaching Bankers to Behave,” and “How Pope Francis Could Break the Church.” I have to admit, I read the former and the later articles, respectively (maybe I doubted that anything could make Bankers behave?). In case you are not familiar, the average length of Atlantic articles requires more than one cup of coffee and occasionally necessitates a bookmark and second sit down when one is pressed for time. Nevertheless, my deep fascination with our current pontiff prompted me to read all of what Ross Douthat had written about Pope Francis and church breaking.

The main difference between news on cable TV and print media, which I believe could well make a comeback, is that print media more frequently contains actual news and informative content. Maybe I am just getting older and more curmudgeonly, but I can no longer stand to watch a cable news show that takes one short news item and proceeds to place 4 or 5 talking heads in front of the camera for hours on end to share what they think about it. But … I digress.

One of the things I learned in Douthat’s article was that there are at least three separate biographies of Bergoglio’s life and career, and each of them takes a slightly different perspective: 1) Pope Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Pique (Bergoglio baptized her two children), 2) The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh, and 3) Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely. Though it is surely an overstatement of the three treatments (that all, no doubt, have value), what is fascinating about all of them is how each attempts to nail down what has to feel like jello. Based on his calling, life, and ministry, is Pope Francis a conservative pontiff, an extremely progressive pontiff, or maybe a Pope that lands somewhere in-between? Which is it? Will the true Francis please stand up?

What all three accounts share is the story of a devout and committed Christian who felt a strong call to the priesthood during his teens. He entered the Jesuit order in 1958 and took his vows and became a full Jesuit in 1973. It was in that same year, 1973, when he was thrust into leadership of the order in Argentina at the age of 36, a time of turmoil in both the order and the country. There was already a fairly large rift between conservative and progressive priests at the time. By all three accounts, Bergoglio’s leadership was successful in several ways. His concern for the poor was always present, but he also elevated some traditional, pre-Vatican II elements of devotion and worship that were shared by many of Argentina’s poor Catholics. The pre-Vatican II feel of this move did not make progressives enthusiastic. And, though the order’s numbers rebounded, there remained deep frustration on both sides. The critics eventually won out, and Bergoglio was “exiled” from leadership and sent to the small mountain town of Cordoba. It was around two years later that John Paul II’s choice for archbishop would once again bring his leadership to the forefront.

I am no expert on Roman Catholicism or on Pope Francis, but since his selection as the new Peter, he still tends to stir the pot on all sides of the stove. There is something that feels different about this pontiff who adamantly and repeatedly refuses to be placed in a box, whether he is refusing to live in the papal palace, deciding to wash the feet of both Muslims and women, choosing to make personal pastoral phone calls without concern for proper protocols, or making it clear that he plans to end corruption in the Vatican during his watch. I don’t know where all of this will eventually lead, but I do think there is something United Methodists could learn here as we approach another annual conference voting year and begin to plan for General Conference 2016. Could Pope Francis break the Catholic Church? Only time will tell, but Douthat also suggests that it is

imaginable that Francis could succeed in his balancing act. So long as doctrine doesn’t seem to be in question, a papal agenda focused on ending corruption in the Vatican and emphasizing a commitment to the global poor could successfully straddle some of the Church’s internal divides – not least because those divides aren’t always as binary as the language of ‘left and right’ suggests.

Pope Francis’ example in terms of tone, emphasis, and his savvy discernment about “what to focus on when” all suggests a way forward for those who witnessed the spiritual gridlock and legislative implosion that was GC 2012.

I am aware that sexuality is still THE hot-button topic of both the month and the quadrennium, but part of me also longs for a General Conference that desires to inspire, equip, and empower Methodists to proactively get into their communities and host conversations between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our local communities so that we can prevent future Baltimores and Fergesons. I am also hopeful that the growing life and death needs of our sisters and brothers in the global south might get a little more conference floor time than the more U.S. centric obsession with whether states or the federal government should define marriage.

Maybe one lesson we can learn from our current pontiff is that United Methodists can also refuse to let what still appears to be the U.S. legislative issue-of-the-day put us in a box that is sure to once again tie our hands, get our backs up, and prevent our mouths from speaking any word other than the all too familiar one of derision, infighting, and us vs. them self-righteousness. We might just discover that the internal divides that remain among us are not as binary as the terms “left,” “right,” and “middle” seem to suggest. At least that is my hope … and my prayer.