Friday, February 3, 2012

Was Jesus smart?

Our Wednesday night Bible study group is studying Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” this spring. As part of my preparation, I’ve been re-reading Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. It’s a tremendous book, in scope, insight and challenge.

As part of the background discussion to the Sermon on the Mount, Willard asks an unexpectedly provocative question: “Do we think Jesus was smart?” This question turns out to be an unexpected way of asking if we trust that the way of living Jesus offers to us will actually work in the real world messes that we encounter in our living.

Well, do we believe that Jesus was smart? That seeking a brother or sister for forgiveness is really the right thing to do (Matt 5:21-26)? That turning the other cheek is the best way to respond to our enemies (Matt 5:38-48)? That prayer works (Matt 6:9-12)?

Don’t just give the “churchy” answer here and move on. The fact is, there are always a number of possibilities available to us to approach any problem we’re facing. Sometimes they are exactly the opposite of what Jesus teaches us. Sometimes they seem like a better way to handle the situations we face.

We always have a choice.

All of this leads me to a second question. “What would we do if our lives literally depended on doing what Jesus said?” That’s not one we encounter very often in our living, because we really don’t live that close to the “margins” of life and death. But some of our brothers and sisters around the world do. In this month’s Messenger magazine (a publication of the Church of the Brethren), Jay Wittmeyer, director of Global Mission and Service, talks about some Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo who find themselves caught in the middle of a conflict between two other ethnic groups of people where they live. Localized war has been ongoing between the Bafulero and Twa Pygmy communities for quite some time, with a small group of Christians caught in between. So what are these Christians doing? They are venturing into the mountains around their home, seeking to build relationships with these two groups, thus earning the credibility to bring them together for reconciliation. In doing so, they are risking their lives. What they are doing is not safe, and the region in which they live is not secure. But then maybe their lives aren’t that secure anyway… Or maybe they actually think Jesus was smart.

We generally don’t live close enough to the margin for our lives to be in peril if we do (or don’t do) what Jesus said. Unlike these Congolese Christians, we aren’t likely to die if we don’t forgive one who hurt us, or enable feuding neighbors to get along better. For us, the matter is much more subtle, and much more serious… Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Between the Ash Heap and the Whirlwind...

{With Lynn's permission, I am posting the sermon I shared at Mark Donihe's funeral on Saturday, January 8.}

Then Job took a piece of broken pottery
and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes
(Job 2:8)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind… (Job 38:1)

This is the one we’re not prepared for. I’ve been forced this week to deal with those portions of Scripture that I’ve always been glad are there, but always somewhat overlooked because they’ve never quite applied to me, verses like Jeremiah 12:1, You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? To put it in my own words, “In a world full of scoundrels and sinners, why is Mark the one who is taken from us?”

My own questioning brought me to these verses from Job. We’re mostly familiar with the general story: caught up in a cosmic battle between God and Satan, Job has everything taken away from him. As the losses pile up, even his wife advises him to just curse God and die. But this is the one thing Job won’t do, and so Job does what people in that day did in times like these, he went out and sat among the ashes in a public mourning ritual. No private mourning here; the entire community would know of Job’s suffering and come and share in that with him.

The next thing that happens is that Job’s friends come and sit with him for a while; together they begin to offer some explanation for all that has happened to him. For all of their good intentions, they’re not much help. After a long series of conversations back and forth where they begin to wrestle with the tempest of emotions that is within Job, God shows up in the whirlwind, and sets everything to rights. In the end, all is well.

And it will be for us one day. But we’re not there yet. We find ourselves between the ash heap and the whirlwind, owning the pain and wondering why. Living in this in-between time, where do we turn for comfort and consolation? I found some help with the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:13, and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


This verse reminds me that living between the ash heap and the whirlwind, faith is still a good idea. I was here on Tuesday evening for the prayer service, and I don’t mind telling you that standing here today I’m disappointed with God---even a bit ticked off that God didn’t answer our prayers like we wished. But even though I’m disappointed with God, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to walk out the door or turn my back on him. And in part, I am encouraged here by Mark’s own faith, which helped him weather a few storms in his own life, and continue to be encouraged to work for the spread of the gospel, that other persons might come to know Jesus like he did.

When you live on the 1800 block of Mount Vernon Road, you’re surrounded by Methodists. I feel like I know so much about this congregation through Mark that I’m practically an associate member! I remember one spring or summer Saturday morning Mark came home from a planning meeting so excited because he’d seen some statistics that gave the number of unchurched people who live within some short distance of the church. We talked about ways the church might reach those people, and that they would come to have faith in Jesus Christ and live that out here! Mark’s contagious faith and commitment to this congregation can be an encouragement to each of us. How many Marks are there at Raleigh Court UMC to joyfully live out that faith?

That same faith made him so excited to see Mollie go on mission trips each summer, and encouraged him to participate in the service at Wasena Park and help with the singing, and made him look forward to working with Interfaith Hospitality Network. One of the last times I spoke with Mark was right before Christmas as he was wrapping and preparing to deliver Christmas presents to an IHN family.

Even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, living with faith is still a good idea.

We came to the prayer service and spent time in the hospital this week hoping that Mark would be restored to us, and that hope was not realized. There was a point when Mark’s condition got to the point where there was nothing left to hope for, in terms of an earthly, physical recovery.

But here again, Mark’s own contagious, large personality reminds us that hope is a magnificent thing. You couldn’t know Mark for long without realizing how much he enjoyed children and youth---and really people in general. It was an expression of hope that he was always talking about Mollie, Hill, and Reid, their friends, not to mention the other children on the street. Mark was aware of this large number of young people---many of whom are here today---and the amazing things they do on the golf course or ball field or stage or marching band. He was amazed at the kids on our street learning to “double Dutch” jump rope or learning to ride unicycles. I would question whether or not any of us know anyone else who loved people more than Mark, was more interested in them than he was, and always saw the best in them, encouraging them and supporting their endeavors. What better expression of hope is there than wanting to see other people reach their potential and have as much fun as possible all the way there?

Even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, living with hope is still a good idea.


And finally, love. The Scripture reminds us that “the greatest of these is love.” Perhaps the hardest thing for us today is that not only are we so sad, our sadness is so out of character for Mark. As a pastor, I suppose I’m as guilty as any of taking the things of the church too seriously. But I had to chuckle the other night when in the middle of this passionate, tear-filled, serious prayer service, the candle holders had to be carried out of here on fire. And who would have laughed the hardest at that? Mark! I guarantee you that if the circumstances had been different and Mark had been here and I hadn’t been, I and all of Mt. Vernon Road would have heard about that one for years.

It’s our love for Mark that brought us here on Tuesday evening, that kept the flow of traffic coming into the hospital waiting room this week, and that has us here today. It was love that generated the response to the article in the Roanoke Times. Yesterday, 7,997 people read that article online. The next leading article had 4,600 hits---and it was about Virginia Tech football! As a Georgia Tech fan, Mark would have loved that!

And let me tell you something. Even though we live between the ash heap and the whirlwind today, love is still a good idea. Falling in love still makes sense. Loving your kids is an incredible thing. Loving your neighbor’s kids is great. Loving God and loving your neighbor is still gospel. Because even though I’m still disappointed with God about this one, even though we can look at Mark’s life and laugh and cry all at the same time, even though we have to pick up the pieces of life and move forward into an uncertain future, even though we live today between the ash heap and the whirlwind, Mark’s life is an example and encouragement to us, and a motivation for me to still follow Jesus and carry on. Our faith reminds me that as hard as this day is, because of Jesus this is not the end of our love for Mark. It is only a break until one day we are all together with Mark, with Jesus, for eternity.

Our task over the coming days will be to search down in side of ourselves and claim a tenacious faith in Jesus Christ amidst our present trial and tribulation, a tenaciousness that finds its expression in faith, hope and love. Through this, one day I believe our own whirlwind will come, and God will speak to us and our perspective of God and his work will be broadened, and we will be brought to a new place where we are once again prepared to more fully accept the full measure of God’s call to follow Jesus. I don’t know when that will be or what it will look like when it arrives, but together with the church down through the ages, I echo the prayer of the church, Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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:

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!