Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prayer for the Roanoke City Council Meeting

December 19, 2011

Our God, as we pause at the beginning of yet another regular council meeting, we are fully aware of the time of year it is. Our personal and civic schedules have been filled with many "special" things, from Dickens of a Christmas to Angel Trees; from Advent and Hanukkah services to the Homeless Persons Memorial Service; from the Good Neighbors Fund to the Salvation Army bell ringers. We are grateful to live in such a place where each of these things is possible, and adds their own contribution to the character of this city.

Help us to take advantage of the opportunity that these special events and this special time gives to us; the chance to examine our own living, and the choices we make. In the midst of the regular events of life: our jobs, our family time, and even this council meeting here today, help us to slow down and consider how it is we are doing unto others as we would have them do to us, and how well we are doing at loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Guide us and direct us into your ways. We ask your blessing on this city; this City Council and the employees and citizens they serve, and each one of us.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent letter to the denomination

Sisters and Brothers,

The following letter comes from the 2012 Annual Conference Officers. Thank you for your prayers for our church, and your continued work in "Continuing the Work of Jesus."

Advent 2011

If we have love, disagreement will do us no harm.
If we do not have love, agreement will do us no good.
--Kurtis Friend Naylor

To our sisters and brothers in the Church of the Brethren:

The items of business at Annual Conference earlier this year addressed significant matters of life and faith, and our passionate discussions showed that we take those matters seriously.

Vigorous debate is not necessarily cause for concern, but within our discussions there were clearly times when our tone and attitudes toward one another crossed a line. In those moments, it was painful to see that our debate sounded no different from the way society in general debates controversial matters—where sides are taken, accusations are made, threats are received. One church member received a death threat. Another member was told, “I wish you would go to hell.” And many individuals spent their time identifying with their particular sub-group rather than with the church as a whole.

As officers of Annual Conference, we long for our discussions in the Church of the Brethren to be markedly different from that of the world. If those who are not disciples of Jesus were to observe us at our most difficult moments, would they be able to see—through our words, our tone, and our actions—how much we love and respect one another?

And so we offer a challenge. We urge each of us to take a step back from our current disagreements and examine whether our own attitudes and actions reflect the transformation we have come to know through the Holy Spirit. Specifically, we encourage members to consider taking the following actions before the 2012 Annual Conference in St. Louis:

· If we have spoken ill of anyone or in any way failed to build up the church through our spoken words, our social media, or even by our thoughts, that we make an effort to be reconciled again in Christ Jesus our Lord, in the spirit of Matthew 18:15-20.
· That we devote ourselves to study and prayer around the 2012 Annual Conference theme, Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together, and theme verses Matthew 28:19-20.

Finally, it is our hope that we would all hold one another in prayer as we seek to Continue the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together.

Grace and peace to you,

Tim Harvey, Moderator
Bob Krouse, Moderator-Elect
Fred Swartz, Secretary

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Seven Billion People

Sometime between now and early next year the world’s population will exceed seven billion. That’s a lot of people. For some years now, forecasts have been made about the effects of over-population, and what impact an increasing number of people will have on the limited amount of resources available on planet Earth. It begins to beg the question, “How many people can our planet sustain?”

People have been suggesting an answer to this question for years. Just this week, I came across an article in the National Review Online that suggests seven billion people is no big problem. The article is worth a read, and can be found here: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/281879/seven-billion-people-no-problem-glenn-t-stanton.

As we consider the impact seven billion people will have on the earth, a bit more careful analysis is required that what Glenn Stanton offers. Consider…

  • He quotes other sources to say that all 7 billion people on the earth could live in the state of Texas, at about the same population density of New York City. I’ll take his word on the math here, but the fact is, we don’t all live in Texas. Some places (like the American Great Plains) are very sparsely populated. Other places (nations like India or Bangladesh) are quite overpopulated.

  • Stanton further says that all 7 billion of us could live within the borders of Rhode Island, with enough room for everyone to do “jumping jacks.” This point could not possibly be more irrelevant or absurd. Where would people live, find shelter, use the bathroom, etc.

  • But while we’re tossing out irrelevant statistics, let me add one more. Let’s not just put all 7 billion of the earth’s people in Rhode Island and leave everything else empty. Let’s put 7 billion people within Rhode Island’s borders and increase the rest of the global population by the same factor. That would create a world population of 49 trillion! I think you can see why there comes a point where population growth is a problem---even if all everyone did was jumping jacks.

Stanton does make a very helpful observation about halfway through the article. He says, “And while all is not well…” Indeed, it is not. I don’t intend to offer doomsday sorts of predictions, but let’s consider the fate of this 7 billionth person.

There are today two new babies among my Facebook friends. It is possible that one of these babies is the one that pushed the global population over 7 billion. And if so, how fortunate they are. Both were born into strong, Christian families in the United States. Their parents are well-grounded, secure people with good paying jobs and a home of their own. They have an extended family that will nurture them, a church family to help them learn about Jesus, a safe neighborhood and good schools to grow up in. In short, they potentially have everything they need to grow up safe, secure, happy.

But what if this 7 billionth person is born into an overcrowded fishing village in Southeast Asia? One question this child might face is, “What will I eat?” Their parents might be local fishermen, struggling to harvest enough of the oceans bounty in competition with large commercial fishing fleets whose traps, trawl nets and other fishing lines harvest so many fish that there is very little left for the locals. Stanton says that “there is still plenty of food.” Well, maybe. If there is, it is often in the wrong places. And in terms of fishing, global fishing consumption has doubled in the past generation, while global fishing harvests have decreased since 1988. Enough food or not, Stanton oversimplifies. Malnutrition is a very real possibility.

And what if this 7 billionth person is born in India? One question this child might face is “What will I drink?” India’s population of almost 1.2 billion people is putting extreme pressure on local water supplies. What water is available is harder to get at and often polluted. Many who study global water supplies say that there basically is enough water on Earth for 7 billion people to drink and bathe in. But, again, it’s often in the wrong places.

So where does the church come in? In 1 John 3:17, John says “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” “Goods” translates the Greek “bios.” It refers simply to those things we need to live: air, food, water, shelter. We can’t solve all of the world’s problems. We need not get caught up in doomsday scenarios of the effects of overpopulation. But we can recognize the struggling of other persons for what it is, and start there.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just a Theory?

As a pastor who was formerly a scientist, I enjoy opportunities to use both sets of skills at the same time. It has been over 15 years since I last set foot in a Chemistry lab, so my scientific endeavors these days are not as “experimental” as I might wish. (Which simply means that I haven’t blown something up in years!) Instead, I often turn my scientific pursuits toward gaining a deeper understanding of this world in which we live.

One of the hot scientific topics these days is climate change. Is human activity leading to some potentially catastrophic warming of the earth? Is talk of climate change a left-wing conspiracy? Is the answer somewhere in the middle---some climate change is clearly visible, but perhaps we don’t have the overall perspective to say for sure how significant it will be? Just the very mention of any of these positions will certainly lead to “warming” of one kind---the conversation will probably get “hot” within minutes of introducing the topic.

You don’t have to listen very long to one of these conversations before you will hear someone say, “I don’t believe in global warming---it’s just a theory.” And with that, any argument or evidence is dismissed by that person as mere personal opinion. For some, “theory” seems to mean “speculation,” “unproven assumption,” or “conjecture.” Seen from this perspective, a “theory” of global warming is just someone’s opinion of these things, of no more importance than anyone else’s opinion. After all, they say, it’s “just a theory.” I have mine and you have yours.

The problem is, scientific theory doesn’t work this way. In the world of science, a theory is an idea that has been shown through experimentation to explain observable things in the world around us. The theory might have begun as a “speculation” or “conjecture” in a scientist’s mind, but through the rigorous discipline of experimentation, has been shown to explain things. Scientific theories, then, are far from being mere conjecture; they are workable models through which the world around us may be understood and explained.

Does this mean that theories don’t occasionally get modified or disproven? Of course not. Just last week, scientists in Europe reported measuring a sub-atomic particle traveling faster than the speed of light. Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (introduced in 1905) says that this should not be possible. Does this mean that Einstein’s theory was disproven? Maybe, and maybe not. More experiments will determine that.

And that’s exactly the point when talking about scientific theory. The facts are determined through experimentation and observation. To dismiss them out of hand as “just a theory” misses the point entirely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another method of spiritual growth

Along the road of discipleship, there are many helpful things we can do to increase our commitment to Christ and the church. One of these is found in Hebrews 13:7:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

This verse is on my mind because today, our congregation buried a very dear member, Gertrude Prillaman. Gertrude was 93, and had been a member at Central since 1945. 1945!!! Wow.

Gertrude's life provides fertile ground for those who seek to imitate our leaders. I share with you the message I preached at her funeral this morning. The text is Acts 9:36-42, the account of Peter and Dorcas.

It was several weeks ago, as I thought about Gertrude’s declining health that I realized the potential of this passage for Gertrude’s funeral message. I would be interested to know—and will probably ask a few of you later—what connections you see between Gertrude and Tabitha. For me, the immediate connection was that both women were talented seamstresses. Gertrude held jobs as a seamstress, and up until just a few months ago would take clothes into her home for alterations, a job which required her navigating the stairs into the basement, where she kept her sewing work. There is a talent to being a seamstress that is probably being lost to us these days, as fewer and fewer people know how to sew and either make or alter their own clothes.

The connection of being seamstresses, however, ends up being something to hold our attention long enough to discover what is really a rich passage about the life of this faithful woman, Tabitha, and someone who was very much like her, Gertrude. We learn a few more things about life and faith as we compare these two women.

Both women were devoted to the church. In verse 36, Tabitha is identified as a disciple. It is interesting to consider that in all the book of Acts, only four persons are clearly identified as disciples, and Tabitha is the only woman to be so identified. What a way to be remembered, because the Bible tells the truth about people! Many times, this remembering of people’s lives is not especially favorable, but for Tabitha, she receives the highest identification that was available to persons: being a disciple!

At times of loss, it is natural for us to look for ways to remember our loved ones. It’s natural to spend time looking at old pictures, or telling stories, or wanting to shape the memorial service a particular way. Beyond that, you don’t have to look very far to realize that a family can invest a lot of time, energy and money into monuments and memorials that they hope will cause people to remember an individual for a very long time. We have a fear of being forgotten. But none of those things are a substitute for being remembered first and foremost as a disciple. Whatever the women said to Peter when he came in the house, the Bible first remembers Tabitha as a disciple.

I do believe this is one way we can remember Gertrude. She was so very faithful to the church, yet one more of a generation of Central members who found their way to church when it would have been easier to just stay home; consistent in giving when money was tight; helpful in encouragement to those who are in leadership; curious about newcomers to the church family, and wanting them to be made welcome; faithful in supporting the ministries of the church. We will remember Gertrude as a disciple who served faithfully in the Central congregation.
Both women were generous in their support of others. Tabitha is remembered by being devoted to good works and acts of charity. One of the first things that people tell me about Gertrude is how she helped in the kitchen, preparing the Wednesday night meals. That might seem like a small, unimportant task, until you realize how important those Wednesday night meals are to our church family. Having someone able to fill that role makes it possible for other persons to more easily make it to church on Wednesday, and strengthens church for us all.

Furthermore, Gertrude’s support of other persons very much included members of her own family, simply doing the things that needed to be done as a family member. We shouldn’t overlook the value of a stable home as an important means of support. Linda and Wesley remember a home where the family spent time doing things together: visiting other family members at reunions; going to the beach, having family picnics when they were children. And it’s not too often that the funeral director knows the family, but in this case, Gerald Sink from Oakey’s grew up on Bunker Hill Street with the Linda and Wesley, and remembers many stories of playing together as children, simply doing things that kids like to do.

I received a note yesterday from Gertrude’s nephews, Paul and David Bowman. They remember Gertrude with these words,

Paul and David Bowman, the sons of Herman and Agnes Bowman, are very grateful for the wonderful care and devotion their Aunt Gertrude exhibited toward their mother, Agnes Bowman. During their mother’s final years at Brandon Oaks, Aunt Gertrude was an encourager to her during times when she needed encouragement, and faithfully came to her side and stayed with her when she had significant health issues before her death. Paul and David are eternally grateful to the Lord for using Gertrude, a willing and faithful sister-in-law, to support and lift up their mother in her times of need. She demonstrated a beautiful example of heartfelt Christian love.

Finally, both women were well loved by their church family. This fact became apparent through the actions of the church family as they responded to a challenging need. Tabitha’s church family stepped in, and hearing of how the Holy Spirit was enabling mighty things in Peter’s life, the church sent for him when Tabitha died. In the meantime they cared for her body while they waited, tending to what they thought might be her final physical needs.

Gertrude’s church family has acted in a similar manner. It was hard for Gertrude to accept help. She was part of a generation that was raised to help anyone who needed it, and to live in such a way to be self-sufficient. Several of us from the church would go by and press Gertrude on this. Finally, she accepted help because she simply had no choice.

As I have watched our church family care for Gertrude, many people have complimented our congregation for that. But it really was a demonstration of how much Gertrude was loved by her church family. I wish that in my own heart I could love everyone equally and sacrificially. Maybe someday I will, or will at least grow in that area. I would say the same for our church family. It is hard to love other people. But Gertrude made it easy for us to love her.

While there are many similarities between Tabitha and Gertrude, there is one significant difference that is also worth pointing out. Tabitha’s death was somehow a tragedy. We really aren’t given any insight into why this is; the only hint of a suggestion is the multiple references to "widows" in this passage. One commentator suggests that Tabitha may have been the head of a house where many widows lived, and she supported them both financially and in the work of the church. This is somewhat like Gertrude’s contributions to our church life, where the investment of time and energy by one person doing what they can enabled a significant impact in ministry received by other persons.

Whatever the case, Tabitha’s death was interpreted as a tragedy, and the response to it was resurrection. Her resurrection was a work that was needed at this time, and this act became a means by which other persons came to know the Lord; the work of the church prospered.
Gertrude’s passing is not a tragedy. It is sad, it is a loss. But it is not tragedy. I wouldn’t seek Gertrude to be resurrected in this life. At some point, we need to decide if we really believe what Jesus said in John 14:3, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also, or what Paul says in Philippians 1:23, I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

And as far as the revival goes, while Tabitha’s resurrection led to a revival, I believe in our day the better chance of revival will come through people like Gertrude, who demonstrate a deep and long-term commitment to Christ and the church. Imagine the impact on a community if we all loved everyone who walked in these doors as much as Gertrude loved us, and we loved her. Imagine if we started to show some sacrificial love to her, like we show to one another! This would turn the world upside down!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Moving forward

On a chilly Sunday in November 1983, I was baptized at Bethel Church of the Brethren in Broadway, VA. This congregation has been my family’s home for several generations; the original church building (which no longer stands) was built on land donated by my great-great-great grandfather.

Since that day, I’ve realized something about the nature of the church. On that November Sunday, I got all of you— and all of you got me. I like to joke about who got the better end of that bargain—I’m fairly certain it’s me.

All joking aside, however, being called as Moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference has made me realize the depth of the body of Christ. During this past year (and especially during the week at Grand Rapids) I’ve learned how deeply you love the church. That love for the church means that you also love me. I am humbled by that love and will do what I can to hold that with integrity.

I’ve also learned that although we love the church, we have a lot of work to do—more than we expected—to learn what it means to love one another.

During our Annual Conference in Grand Rapids, we talked at great length about our disunity and our brokenness. I have heard the discussions and the pain, and I believe what we’ve said about our brokenness. From that and the decisions that were made, I pledge to you that as I travel around the denomination over the coming months, I am willing to have any conversation with any person about any aspect of life and ministry. I will do what is in my power and ability to make those conversations safe. Already, some of you have reached out to me to continue these conversations, and I do hope that they will continue all the way to St. Louis. I want all of us to be there.

In the midst of this, I’ve tried to pay attention to what we’ve been saying in the "in-between times." What I find there is something else: unity! For over 300 years, Brethren have gathered in Spirit-filled community around the Bible, choosing to be the church described in the pages of the New Testament. Brethren chose this radical obedience to the Great Commission in the waters of the Eder River in Schwarzenau, being rebaptized as adult believers. They did this in radical disobedience to the laws of the land. Since then Brethren are continuing the work of Jesus by evangelizing neighborhoods around their meetinghouses; by being peacemakers in their communities, and occasionally by inserting themselves into places of conflict; by responding to a massive earthquake in Haiti with disaster response teams, global mission, workcamps, ministry education. There are also many more ways that are too numerous to mention here.

Along the way, Brethren have discovered that our calling is not to make the institutions of this world more holy and righteous; our calling is to be the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. This is where we begin to find our unity.

As your moderator for the 2012 Annual Conference in St. Louis, I invite you to start making preparations now for next year’s conference. Come prepared to rejoice in the ways we continue the work of Jesus. Share about disciple making, church planting, confronting injustice, sending missionaries, commissioning BVS workers and workcampers. I would be glad to hear those stories when I visit in your district, or through email, Facebook, and other on-line sources. One historical piece that I hope to bring to St. Louis are stories of Brethren martyrs—those persons who sacrificed their lives while continuing the work of Jesus.

Between then and now, you can keep up with me in the following places:

By email: moderator@brethren.org
On facebook: "Tim Harvey"

May the peace of Christ rule in your heart, and in the hearts of all the Brethren.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thinking Carefully About Our Choices

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things
grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
Ephesians 4:15

On August 2, 1998, I was in a van filled with teenagers, driving from Colorado State University to the airport in Denver. Those of you who are Brethren realize that we were coming home from National Youth Conference. It was a Sunday morning. I remember this detail because of what we saw driving through Fort Collins. Along one of the streets, we passed a church with a reasonably full parking lot. About a block later, we passed a soccer field that was filled with kids playing and parents watching the game. The parking lot at the soccer field had more cars than the parking lot at the church.

At the time I remember thinking, "this is what the church will have to face. Sunday will become just another day of the week, and we disciples of Jesus will have to decide our allegiances." When it comes to Sunday, will we participate in the various things our schools or sports teams offer us, or will we reserve this time for worship?

I’m sure you can guess what I think the answer should be here, and you would probably be right. Church folk need to be in church on Sunday morning (or whenever your congregation meets for worship.) It’s a vital part of who we are, and without the spiritual formation that happens in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the family of faith, other options and attitudes will stake a claim on our allegiance.

Sorting out our allegiances can be a difficult exercise. Many of the options available to us on Sunday mornings (and every other time during the week) are worthwhile endeavors. I don’t choose to lay a guilt trip on anyone who has had to decide between coming to worship or playing in the finals of a travel softball tournament, or going out of town on a business trip.

But, as multiple worthy options seek a portion of your time, how carefully do you think about your decisions? Are you an impulse chooser, going along with whatever looks the best at the moment? Are you a buffet sampler, choosing a little bit of everything along the way? Are you a vacuum cleaner, sucking in so many activities that your schedule is filled to the max?

A healthier way of choosing among multiple good, competing options, has at least these three guiding principles:

  • First, before becoming involved in another new activity, sit down and examine your choices and time commitments carefully. Agree that you will make no decision before thinking about it for at least 24 hours. While you are thinking about it, ask yourself (or those involved) some questions: "Do I really want to do this?" "Do I really have time for this?" "Am I doing this to impress someone else?" Honest answers to these questions might bring clarity to your choices.

  • Second, consider the impact of this new decision on your previously agreed upon commitments. How will this new activity impact your marriage, or time with your kids? Will the new opportunity conflict with church meetings or activities that are already on the calendar? Will you have time to enjoy the other persons in your family if you accept this new commitment, or will you be left frustrated and tired by the amount of running around and late nights the new commitment will bring?

  • Third, how much time do you have to sit down and do nothing? And by nothing, I mean nothing! No TV, no internet, no chores, just nothing. We all need a certain amount of down time. If your schedule doesn’t allow for any, you are doing too much.

I am continually thankful that Jesus is interested in every aspect of my life. My faith helps me honor Him with my choices. In all things, including our time commitments, we can grow up into Christ.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Death of an Enemy

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble,
or else the LORD will see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from them.
(Proverbs 24:17-18)

I awoke this morning to celebration. I found it on Facebook, in the news, and in conversation in general. Osama bin Laden was killed by US soldiers yesterday. There can be little doubt that bin Laden will go down in history as one of the world’s worst, a perpetrator of violence and evil in the name of God.

I’m glad he’s gone.

At the same time, the celebration feels out of place. My lack of excitement comes from the fact that bin Laden’s death will do very little to stem the flow of violence that saturates our world. The war in Afghanistan will continue; we will still struggle to bring troops home from Iraq, and who knows where the conflict in Libya will lead us. In some parts of the world, children will continue to grow up playing "interrogate the terrorist" instead of taking sports or music lessons (see photo at bottom).

What is more, violence still permeates the culture I live in. Television programs, movies and video games make loads of money by putting violent acts before our very eyes, inviting us to watch—or worse—participate. Civil discourse becomes more adversarial by the day, at a time when we most need to work together to present constructive solutions to some very real challenges. And as for my own personal enemies—those persons with whom I struggle to get along—I must confess that feelings of revenge are often closer to the surface than desires for reconciliation.

This blog leaves unanswered some very serious questions about the church’s response to evil. Those will come another day. For today, I simply say this: If you find yourself celebrating the killing of a killer who celebrated killing, beware. In a world where violence is everywhere, silence and humble reflection seem the better options.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa was riding in a train, on her way to her annual spiritual retreat. It was here that she heard the call of Christ in an actual conversation with Jesus to "give up all and follow Him into the slums—to serve Him in the poorest of the poor." We know, of course, that she did. This conversation on the train was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity.

What is less well-known was that for the rest of her earthly life---with just one or two brief exceptions---she did not hear Jesus’ voice again, and felt as though Jesus had somehow withdrawn his presence from her. Her spiritual life was very dry from that point on, and she often experienced an almost crippling lonliness. It took her seven years to admit this to anyone, but on March 18, 1953, she wrote a letter to her spiritual director, saying, "Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.' Ask Our Lord to give me courage."

There is a misconception we encounter that proves to be a hindrance to our spiritual growth if not properly understood. The misconception is that authentic spiritual life will be a continual walk with God from spiritual high to spiritual high; that we will walk along the ridge-top of the mountain range for extended periods of time, and only infrequently or never have to deal with the realities of life in the valleys, and highways and cities and back-alleys below. We often wish to have more mountaintop experiences like that of Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1-8). In reality, we can neither duplicate nor replicate these mountaintop experiences in our own strength or efforts; they are the gift of God for a particular time and place and season in our lives. Nevertheless, we often try. In our society where far too much is available to us in far too great of abundance, it is easy to believe that we should never be in lack, that we should never be insecure, that we should never be without something that we desire. This is the day of the quick fix; every hunger can be satisfied by a phone call for pizza delivery; every ache and pain can be treated by a trip to the 24-hour pharmacy for a pill or cream. In terms of spiritual experience, there are enough concerts and seminars and good books out there to keep us feeling spiritually good for quite a while.

What is amazing is that a simple examination of things demonstrates that this is not, however, true. If we would just take some time to really examine this thing we have grabbed onto in faith, we would see that the best of the spiritual giants went through times of doubt, times of walking in the wilderness...

  • Moses spent 40 years in the desert between his growing up years and his leadership years.

  • Elijah spent time in the wilderness by a brook being fed by ravens; then spent time with a widow and her son, eating what perpetually seemed to be their last meal; then time in a cave wondering what was going on and where God was.

So if you ever feel abandoned, or that your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling, or that you are "knocking on the doors of Heaven with bruised knuckles in the dark," take a look at some of the spiritual graffiti on the walls around you and notice the names of the people who have walked this path before. You are in the company of spiritual giants!

Author Eugene Peterson speaks to this when he says "Some people would have us believe that the moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Savior. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship that has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not disobey us."

He continues, "Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong" (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 37).

The ironic part of these feelings of "forsakenness" or "the dark night of the soul" is that they come, not because of anything we have done to displease God, but when we are being most faithful. It is counter-intuitive, but true.

  • Consider Jesus, alone on the cross, feeling this separation from God at the moment he is bearing our sin. This was precisely what he was called to do. In order to finish his work and secure our salvation, Jesus needed to---even chose to!---endure the separation from God.

  • Consider the illustration of Mother Teresa, enduing years of seeming separation from God to faithfully serve with the Missionaries of Charity.

In the end, "forsakenness" becomes a means of testing our obedience. Will we remain faithful to Jesus, not just in the ends we pursue, but also in the means? Having heard from God, having received a calling, are we willing to "stay at our post" even if we receive no affirmation from anyone, even God?

Are we sure enough in what God has asked us to do that we will remain faithful, even if Heaven is silent?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Getting Involved

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19:26-27).

The last thing I need right now is one more thing to do. From conversations with friends and church members, I suspect many echo that sentiment. There is just so much to do. Our work seems to get more challenging by the day. Our children’s over-scheduled activities can having us running morning, noon, and night. Some of us are caught in the challenging role-reversal of middle age and find ourselves being parents to our parents. Others battle frightening sickness. In the midst of all of this, we seek to maintain our relationships with family, friends, and our faith community. So I don’t need one more thing to do...except for those times when I do. Consider...

The words of Jesus included above challenge me in a surprising way. The "words" are the third of Jesus’ "seven last words from the cross," the seven last recorded sayings of Jesus before he died. In many ways, they are like a "last will and testament," where Jesus takes care of things that are important to him. As Jesus hangs on the cross, he looks down and sees his mother, Mary, standing there watching her son die. It is not difficult to imagine that Jesus is concerned about Mary’s needs, and simply asks one of his disciples to look after her. But could there be more going on here? I believe there is. Jesus lived in a very male-dominated culture. In that day, a widow was dependent on the men in her life (generally the oldest son) to take care of her. On the cross, Jesus recognizes that Mary was vulnerable and would need someone to take care of her. So he tells Mary and John to be mother and son to one another. In an act of loving compassion for his mother, Jesus protects Mary’s vulnerability by asking John to step in, and for the two to be family to one another.

Now, as I’ve said, I don’t really need one more thing to do...except for those times when I do. What I mean by this statement is that it’s really not enough for me to hope my church and my faith can be an oasis from all of the world’s problems, a "haven of rest" in the midst of a troubled world. It’s nice when it can be, but there are simply times when for the sake of other people, I need to step into their vulnerability and be family with them. Perhaps someone lives in a dysfunctional relationship and needs a good friend, mentor, older brother, or father. Perhaps a child has no family to care for him or her, and needs to be adopted into a loving family. Perhaps an elderly or disabled neighbor needs someone to take the place of children who live hundreds of miles away. Either way there are times when for someone else’s sake, I really do need one more thing to do, and am asked to rearrange my life around their needs. For the other person, it could be a matter of quality of life, even life or death. For me, it is a matter of faithful discipleship.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was finishing divinity school, he had several job options. Most were in the north, where he could either be a pastor or college professor without the inconveniences and humiliation of segregation. One option, however, was at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Both King and his wife wrestled with the choices they had, because the opportunities in the north were very attractive. They could have escaped segregation. In finally making the decision to accept the pastorate in Montgomery, King says,

"We came to the conclusion that we had something of a moral obligation to return [to the South]—at least for a few years. The South, after all, was our home. Despite its shortcomings, we had a real desire to do something about the problems that we had felt so keenly as youngsters. We never wanted to be considered detached spectators. Since racial discrimination was most intense in the South, we felt that some...who had received a portion of their training in other sections of the country should return to share their broader contacts and educational experience. Moreover...we had the feeling that something remarkable was unfolding in the South, and we wanted to be on hand to witness it" (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., pp. 44-45).

King was invited to enter into the vulnerability that black Americans in the South experienced, and work to change their suffering. The results of that work are well documented. So as you look at your day planner and to-do lists and the people, needs, and opportunities around you, I leave you with a simple question: do you need one more thing to do? Consider your answer carefully!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Funeral Service

Today, our congregation gathered to celebrate the life of Leon Michael. At the time of his death, Leon was Central's oldest living member, at 97 years of age. Here is the Scripture text and message delivered at his memorial service on March 17.

Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

When you live in a place such as Roanoke, the "hills" are a great source of strength and a reminder of the things that are important to you.

On Tuesday, I flew home from Chicago. It was overcast most of the way; I saw very little ground during the entire flight. As we descended from the sun-lit sky above the clouds, there was a several minute period when the plane was entirely surrounded by clouds. I wondered when and where we would emerge from the clouds. When we got low enough, I recognized Salem, VA. I looked around and saw familiar sights; the Red Sox field; Lewis-Gale and Roanoke Memorial Hospitals; the Wachovia Tower; and a bit farther on William Fleming High School. But what always catches my eye flying into Roanoke are the hills. Mill Mountain; Roanoke Mountain; Sugar Loaf Mountain; Read Mountain. When we see these places, we are aware of one thing: we are home.

Psalm 121 contains so much more than nice, comforting, poetic words; the Psalm is highly contextual for the people who lived in that day. Because we tend to view the Psalms as comforting words to hold internally, it is easy to overlook the very real choice presented in verse 1: I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? From where will it come, indeed?

In the Psalmist's day, the hills contained both dangers and sources of hope. As one traveled through the hills, dangers could be found in the rough paths that might make a traveler stumble, or the heat of the sun, or the loneliness of the night. Danger might come in the form of the bandits, robbers and wild animals that hid in the various nooks and crannies of the hills. Travel through these hills was not safe, because a person never knew for certain who or what might be waiting for them just beyond the next bend in the road.

This is largely a foreign concept for us, especially here in Roanoke. If we were going to hike from Rivers Edge park and to the top of Mill Mountain, there really would be no sense of worry. There are two paved roads, multiple paths, and the police are just a cell phone 9-1-1 call away. It would be pretty safe—unless someone had gone up to Mill Mountain Zoo ahead of us and let the animals out. Then we might think differently! Suddenly a trip that was challenging only because of the height of the mountain would take on a different reality.

But that was not all; there was also an alleged source of hope in the mountains. In the very mountains the Psalmist had in mind—and maybe was looking at when he or she wrote—were all manner of false gods. An offering at the shrine of the sun god might help you fight off the heat; an offering at the shrine of the moon god might help you battle your struggles through the night; participate in some other religious ritual for extra protection from some other god.

When the Psalmist says, I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? he’s asking a very relevant question. From where does our help come?

As I mentioned earlier, when I lift up my eyes to the mountains we can see right outside these doors, I am reminded of home. I’m reminded of faith and family, friends and familiar places. These are the things that keep me grounded, remind me of who I am, and remind me of whose I am.

Knowing Leon, it is easy to realize that he connected with these things as well. The part of Leon I knew was the one who had a twinkle in his eye, always willing to share a laugh, joke and kid around. Leon had the most prominent twinkle in his eye that I have ever known. Watching that twinkle disappear was one of the ways I knew last Thursday that he wouldn’t be with us long; from visiting him the first of February and again the first of March his health had noticeably declined but the twinkle was still there; but from just Sunday to Thursday of last week, the twinkle left. I always enjoyed that twinkle, and the smile that came with it.

Some persons knew Leon as someone who loved to play golf and was one of a group that helped Blue Hills golf club get started. Leon was an avid golfer, and has a plaque commemorating the day he shot 85 at age 85. Another connection that he and I shared was growing up in Rockingham County, VA. We often talked about his sports-playing days in Bridgewater.

Others talk about his friendships with various people at Central; including a group of ten persons who liked to get together for dinner and trips. Willis and Eunice Bateman; Waller and Bernice O’Donnell, Dick and Miriam Coleman; Jack and Mildred Overfelt and Leon and Ruth Michasel were known as good friends. It’s hard to find just one or two friends; but to find a group of ten like that who spent time together is a special thing. Today we realize that just two of that group remain: Eunice Bateman and Ruth Michael.

Leon’s connections to faith will also be one way we remember him. It was fairly easy to go back through old directories and find his name; the mid-1960’s saw Leon serving Central as a deacon, other roles certainly existed as well. We could mention he was Central’s oldest living member.

But a story of greater importance was told to me yesterday. Doris Garst reminded me of the garland that hangs from our church balcony each Advent. It stretches the length of the front of the balcony, draped appropriately, with a string of lights running through it. It is easily the most prominent part of our Advent display, and is a special blessing at the Christmas Eve candle lighting service. Doris mentioned that she makes a special effort to stand near the front of the church during the candle lighting, to gather the full effect of the lights. Many others comment that the church looks so bare when that particular piece is taken down; something is noticeably missing. We often wish we could leave it up for a few weeks more.

That’s the way it is with people’s passing, as well. Someone is noticeably missing, and we often wish we could have a few weeks more. But it’s here when the Psalmist’s question comes directly into view: I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? It’s a good question, indeed.

Retired pastor and current author Eugene Peterson says this: "Some people would have us believe that the moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Savior. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship that has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not disobey us."

He continues, "Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong." (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 37)

In place of that, we have a God who is faithful. I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help—and I know your help, Ruth—comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. God is faithful, and will see you through.

Monday, January 17, 2011

20 Questions for the Church

I’m glad God called me to be a pastor. I love the church because it is God’s chosen instrument to advance God’s kingdom in the world. Think about it for a minute: our churches are the places where we work so that God’s kingdom will come, "on earth as it is in heaven." And while I am excited about denominational ministry, ecumenical church work, community-wide initiatives, and other events like these, I believe that ultimately the local church is where the real action is. Every Sunday morning, Wednesday night, and whenever else the local church meets in the presence of God, we have the opportunity to be shaped as disciples of Jesus.

Part of my love for the church includes asking hard questions about the church—how things were decided in the past, how obedient we are being in the present, and what the church will look like in the future. That is what this article is. Hard questions that I think the church needs to be talking about. Questions that ask us if we are being relevant to the issues of the local community and the world. Questions that help us make sure we are serious about the right things. Questions that make us look in the mirror to ask ourselves if we are being obedient to God. These are by no means all of the questions, just a few that are on my radar screen right now.

I must admit that not everyone is as excited about questions like these as I am, but I hope you’ll give them a chance. Furthermore, I’d be delighted to hear your answers to some or all of these questions, and what questions you think need to be on the list. If you’d like to discuss them, send me an email at pastortim@central.roacoxmail.com. If you answer enough of the questions, I may even buy you a cup of coffee so we can talk some more!

  1. Why is it that more people will attend a little-league ball game than a prayer meeting?
  2. What would happen if Christian parents told their kids’ ball coaches that they weren’t going to play on Sunday?
  3. Why is it that more Christians will attend a church carry-in meal than a prayer meeting?
  4. Do we have enough corporate prayer in our churches to honestly complain that prayer is not allowed in our schools?
  5. What does the church have to offer someone who has learned to live without the church, but maintains a belief in God?
  6. How will the church minister to the increasing number of people whose job requires that they work on Sunday?
  7. If your church building was suddenly gone, would your neighborhood notice?
  8. What is the church’s response to persons who are willing to resort to verbal or physical violence in an effort to have their way?
  9. Over the past ten years, our country has spent billions of dollars to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had never happened, would we have been willing to spend the same amount of money to wage peace? Or to improve education? Or on something else?
  10. Downtown Roanoke has persons living in new condos in close proximity to homeless persons. Do you consider this a welcome reality about our city?
  11. How do we best minister to the homeless persons in our midst?
  12. Why is the divorce rate higher among Christians than among those who are not Christian?
  13. Why is Sunday morning still the most segregated time in America?
  14. Is there a way the church can welcome homosexual persons into their midst without splitting the church?
  15. How much do you know about the vote taking place in southern Sudan, and how our Christian brothers and sisters there are living?
  16. How much do you know about the persecution Iraqi Christians are currently experiencing?
  17. What gets you excited about your church?
  18. How can you get someone else excited about that?
  19. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  20. If you aren’t comfortable with some of the answers you have to these questions, what needs to change?