Breaking Points

Have you ever reached your breaking point?  The dictionary defines a breaking point this way, ” the point at which a situation becomes critical.”  It is usually at our breaking points that our emotions are released as well as the physical tensions in our body.  At some point, we all reach a place where our frustrations mount to such a level that the spill out around us.

I’m not sure if people are comfortable saying that Jesus ever reached a breaking point in his life, but it does appear that divine frustration peaked when Jesus began to overturn tables in the Jerusalem Temple.  All four gospels record the dramatic event.

During the season of Passover, first-century Jews came from around the world to offer sacrifices to the Lord.  It was impossible to bring sacrificial animals over such distances, so they could be purchased in Jerusalem for a price.  Besides, the temple tax required its currency so money changers were there to carry out the transaction.  While these practices were needed then became a hot spot for sin.  Pilgrims paid exorbitant rates to change money, and sellers exploited those in poverty, overcharging for the poor man’s offerings.  To add to mix, these transactions took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the place where non-Jews came to pray.  Worship for them was nearly impossible.  While everyone was welcomed to the temple, everyone was not treated the same.

This is the scene that Jesus stepped into when he suddenly began to turn over tables and chairs as money and people went flying in every direction.  Jesus was upset.  Beyond upset, he had reached his breaking point.  For Jesus, the situation had become critical and a statement had to be made.  And indeed, the powers that were would be disturbed by Jesus’ actions.  In Mark’s Gospel, we read, “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (Mark 11: 18-19)  They knew that Jesus had to be dealt with.  Silencing his voice, even if it meant killing him would be their chosen response.  It is highly unlikely that every religious leader felt this way, but perhaps their unwillingness to challenge the chief priest and their silence helped lead to Jesus’ death.

When Jesus was dying upon the cross, he looked at those who had orchestrated his death and those who were carrying out their act and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Of all the words Jesus could have hurled down at his enemies he offered forgiveness; which is simply love and mercy combined.  Jesus was again at a breaking point as he felt his life slipping away.  But unlike the temple where angrily turned over tables, Jesus now lovingly turned the other cheek and finished his life with the same driving force that guided his entire life; love.  Jesus would say in Luke’s Gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

Jesus knew that at the moment of his death that it was only love which could change the sin and death-filled world in which we live.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”  Even in Jesus’ frustration with the unjust temple practices of this day which turned a house of prayer for all people a den of thieves for some people, Jesus never stepped off his foundation of love.  Rather, he gave his life away in love for all.

 

 

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All The Lonely People

Sometimes in life, you can be in a room crowded with people, yet feel all alone.  Sometimes you can sit at a table for a meal with others, yet feel all alone.  Sometimes you can worship in your church and hear the gospel preached, yet feel all alone. Loneliness can be a difficult place to live.  Mother Teresa once wrote, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

Many people live in the poverty of loneliness.  They feel isolated and alone.  And while they may daily connect with other individuals, it is only on the surface.  There is a deep loneliness that they just cannot seem to break free from.  As a result, depression can settle in as loneliness closest friend and leave the individual struggling to find their way in the world.

In Psalm 102 we read:  “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake and am like a sparrow alone on the housetop” (Psalm 102:6-7).  The psalmist confesses that even in the places he should feel at home, he is alone.  This individual’s struggle is played out daily in the lives of people who feel as though in a world of many, they are all by themselves.

Many experiences can bring us to these lonely times:  death and grief, sin and shame, anxiety and fear, broken relationships, and others can lead us down paths where we find ourselves wondering if we were no longer, would anybody even notice.  Would anybody miss me?  Would anybody care?  Indeed, Mother Teresa was right.  Loneliness is a terrible poverty.

The challenge becomes how do I rise out of this poverty of loneliness.  The greater poet, Maya Angelou, spoke of rising out of her loneliness.  She said, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”  Music indeed has a way of lifting our souls from many of life’s difficult experiences.

When I reflect on my faith I realize that God is quite the songwriter.  The lyrics of scripture remind us over and over again that we are never alone.  Nowhere is this truer than in the life of Jesus.  As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples he told them, “I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth … I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16–18).  Jesus didn’t say come look for him, but that he would come looking for us.

Even in our most lonely moments, God is with us.  God is our refuge.  God is our strength.  All the lonely people have the assurance of the all-encompassing love of a God who will not let us go.

 

 

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Mourn with Those Who Mourn

The apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome spoke about the nature of genuine love.  He said many things with respect to this in Romans 12: 9-21.  However, the one I would highlight is in verse 15 where Paul writes, “mourn with those who mourn.”  Now the dictionary defines the word mourn as to feel or express sorrow or grief or to grieve or lament for the dead.  I guess most people when they think of mourning indeed think of death.

We have had a lot of death in our world lately.  For months now our news has reminded us every day of the death count of those who succumbed to COVID-19.  Our tears were still falling for these 100,000 + individuals in our nation when we witnessed on video the death of George Floyd on the streets of Minnesota by officers of the law.  The country was shocked by what they witnessed.  People decided to protest and rightly so.  Yet, then violence crept into peaceful protest as cities struggled through the nights.  With the rise of the sun, we saw the damage left behind and the livelihoods that were lost.

In the Bible, mourning is often associated with lament. A Lamentation is a prayer for help coming out of pain and is very common in the Bible.  A quick read of the book of Psalms sees that about 1/3 of the psalms are psalms of lament.

I find myself lamenting and mourning a lot recently, especially these last several days.  Paul tells us to mourn with those who are mourning.

So, as a Christian, I mourn with those who suffer any form of racism, discrimination whether violent or not.  African Americans have suffered greatly since the foundation of our country.  I mourn for those honest police officers who take seriously the oath to serve and protect but are all labeled for something they do not condone or participate in, but rather daily seek justice for all people.  I mourn for those who lost their businesses and who were just trying to make a living.  And I even mourn for those who killed George Floyd because their lives have been so darkened by sin they did not recognize right and wrong.  I mourn for myself, my own sinfulness, my own judgmentalism, my own lack of understanding of those around me.

So, we ask heartfelt questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” (Psalm 13:2), which implies: I am at the end of my rope, and I cannot hold on much longer; and, “Why, O Lord, do you stand aloof? Why hide in times of distress?” (Psalm 10:1), which implies: “I do not understand what is going on; this makes no sense. How long? Why?” These are not requests for information, but cries of pain. (Franciscan Media)

There are a lot of hurting people in our world.  As a follower of Jesus, I am called to stand with them in their pain.  Elie Wiesel in his book Night, which tells of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp writes, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”   We are all mourning.  We all need one another.  And we need God to help us through mourning’s darkness.

 

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The Kingdom of God is at Hand

When Jesus began his public ministry, he came unified around one mission:  The Kingdom of God.  God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule, and God’s Powerful Presence had entered the world of the first century Jews and things were going to be different.  The people of Israel had been longing for a deliverer to come and rescue them from their lives under Roman rule.  Something had to give, the people had had enough, and a messianic figure like Jesus was just the person they needed.  They waited with anticipation when Jesus would make his move and once and for all defeat the hated Roman authorities.  You can almost imagine some of the Jewish population sharpening up their swords in a battle that was yet to come.  And when Jesus started flipping over tables and chairs in the Jewish temple then the fuse had been lit.  It wouldn’t be long until Jesus called out the zealots of his following to fight to the finish.

So, on the night that Jesus was arrested by armed guards, one of Jesus’ followers grabbed his sword, wildly swung it, and struck the servant of the high priest cutting off his ear.  I can imagine blood that flowed from the head of a severed ear.  Before another sword was drawn or another person injured, Jesus turned to his followers and said, “Put your sword back in its place.  For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  Jesus could have easily brought down the armies of heaven at his word to defend him, but instead, he remained faithful to the message of the Kingdom which said, “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and lay down your life for your friends.”  With that, the disciples ran.  It was not the fight speech they had hoped for.

Jesus now stood alone.  The Kingdom of God stood face to face with the kingdoms of the world.  The Prince of Peace would now encounter the violence of the worldly, political kingdom of Rome.  Sham trials would turn into, real beatings, and ultimately into a violent death on a wooden cross.  Yet, through it all, Jesus remained faithful to the teaching of the Kingdom:  Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute, turn the other cheek, forgive one another, serve rather than be served, sacrifice for others, and in all things give glory to God in heaven.  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is never about oneself, but for others. So, Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and visit those in prison.  For Jesus, these actions demonstrate the King we follow and the Kingdom we live in.

The world today needs to know the message of the Kingdom of God.  As Christians and as the church we must bear witness to its teachings in our words and through our actions.  We bring for not a message of death and destruction but one life and healing.  Our world is in shambles and as the church, our witness is needed more now than ever.  Our world is confused, broken, and hurting.  We must help bear the light of Christ in these dark times.  We must be a place of hope for hopeless, a place of welcome for the weary, a place of friendship for the forgotten, a place of love for those who are hated, and a place where all who are troubled and weary can come home.

 

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A Long Way From Eden

In the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her little dog Toto found themselves in the strange land of Oz she said to her furry companion, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”  Dorothy knew that she now stood in a place that was different than her home.

When God finished creating the Garden of Eden with its first two occupants, a couple named Adam and Eve, God looked at his newly created experiment and called it very good.  It was a paradise; a place where perfect harmony existed between humanity, creation, and God.  God’s hopes and dreams had become a reality and Eden was born. Yet as the story unfolded, sin soon exploded on the scene and left a devastating trail of debris.  Eden was shattered.  Adam and Eve’s relationship was broken, humanity’s relationship with creation was broken, and God’s heart was broken as Eden was no longer what God intended it to be.  With Eden now gone, the rest of the world cascaded into brokenness as Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, killed his younger brother Abel.

When God finds Cain he questions him.  In Genesis 4 we read, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”  Where humanity now stood, it was a long way from Eden.

We are so far away from Eden in our world today.  This recent days we witnessed the horrible killing of George Floyd, a black resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  While in custody, a white officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe.  The brutality of his death has been acknowledged by many Americans. The sin of racism is a constant reminder that we are a long way from Eden.  Wherever individuals are mistreated, oppressed, hated, abused, and killed because of their race, their blood cries out from the ground.  We can never be the people God created us to be as long as the sin of racism is not confessed and repented of.  Only then will we be able to change.

Racism is our national sin.  The sin of slavery continues to ripple through the systems of our nation:  economic, political, judicial, religious, etc.  We must also acknowledge its presence in our own lives.  The subtle whispers of racism can still be heard in our daily living.  Tragically, it takes the death of someone like George Floyd to remind us of this again. We cannot continue down our current path.  The further we move away from God’s design for our lives, then the greater the death and destruction that will follow.

The serpent continues to lead us away from God’s goodness.  Once again it has slithered through peaceful protests of George Floyd’s death to incite more hatred and violence.  Its message is always the same, hate.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this.  “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love…”

As Christians and as the church we must seek to work for justice and righteousness in our land for all people.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus came proclaiming was not simply some Eden-like wonderland beyond the clouds, but a radical transformation of the world in which we live.  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s kingdom cannot come on earth as long as we are okay with some of God’s children not being able to breathe.  God’s Kingdom cannot come as long as we choose violence to respond to the struggles in our world.

I hope I can do better.  I hope that I will pay attention to the serpent of racism and hate that slithers around in my own life leading me to abandon God’s good creation.  I am my brother’s keeper; red, yellow, black, or white.  We all have a place in Eden.

 

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This is My Story, This is My Song

Most Christians have their favorite hymns.  Growing up in church most people are introduced to the great hymns of the faith as children; even when they are too young to understand what they are singing about.  For years as a child, I thought the classic hymn, Amazing Grace, was a song about my great Aunt Grace that lived with my grandparents.  It just made sense.  Yet, over time, these great songs of faith do begin to make sense.  Not only that, but the lyrics also have a way of shaping the very faith we believe.  In fact, a good part of a person’s Christian theology is not learned from a weekly sermon, but from the repetitive singing of hymns.  One of my favorite actors, who was also a singer, Andy Griffith said it this way, “Hymns are companions for life travelers.”

In my office is a poster I designed that is simply a list of favorite lines from hymns that are special to me:

                          O though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.                                                                             This is My Father’s World

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Photo by franpics on Pexels.com‘s World.

                  Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well with my soul.                                                                           It is Well, With My Soul

               Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, than all the angels heaven can boast.                                                               Fairest Lord Jesus

Perhaps one of my favorite lines is from Fanny Crosby’s Blessed Assurance which says, “Filled with his goodness, lost in his love,”  Could there be a more blessed state that to be filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love?  To be filled with God’s goodness means that life finds its meaning not in the offerings of the world, but in the gift of God’s grace that fills us completely, while worldly promises leave us hungry for more.  To be lost in God’s love means that regardless of where we are in life, even when we don’t know where we are, we are still surrounded by God’s love.  Hence, both our inner lives and our outer living are sustained by God.  God’s goodness and God’s love become the theme for our lives.  This is our story, this is our song.

So, let us keep singing even when life’s journey is uncertain.  For one thing is certain, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.  This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.

 

Just Breathe

In July, I will enter my 30th year as the pastor of Pine Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  In some ways, it seems like yesterday until I begin to remember all the people that I have had to say goodbye to because of their deaths.  Death is part of life and is something that we all encounter.  The waves of grief eventually roll upon the shores of all of our lives.

The last few years have been some of my hardest as significant individuals in my life have passed.  For many of these individuals, I was with them as they took their last breath which is a very sacred moment.  The God who gives us life is the same God who receives us in our deaths.  I knew that at the moment of these individuals’ deaths that they were immediately in the presence of God which was reason to rejoice.  Yet, I also knew they were gone from this earth and that I would no longer see them in my life.  But at those moments I bury that grief within so as to minister to the family.  The next few days are filled with visits with the family, funeral home visitation, and then the funeral.  Yet, so often before I have time to reflect on their passing, church life moves on and me with it.

A few weeks ago, I performed the funeral of one of my closes friends at church.  He was our last WWII veteran.  He passed away at the age of 94. Mid adult woman in coastal setting, carrying backpack, breathing in fresh airBecause of the COVID-19 virus, the funeral was attended by one nephew, a representative of the funeral home, my daughter who videotaped the service, and myself.  It was a graveside service in the pouring rain.

A week or so later, I carried my family’s 15-year-old dog, Annie, to put her to sleep as her health had deteriorated to a point that her life had little quality to it.  My wife and two grown children told her goodbye in the car.  The COVID-19 virus also meant that I would go in alone.  I held Annie as the veterinarian did what was necessary to ease her pain and let her sleep.  She died in my arms. The rest of the day was sad.  I slept a lot when I went home as we had been up the night before with Annie.

The following day, as I drove home from church by myself, I suddenly burst into tears while crossing a bridge over the James River.  I had not cried in a while for any of the close friends I had lost in the last few years.  Annie’s death has triggered something in me that caused me to release a couple of years of stored up emotions.  Hidden grief found a way to the surface.  Finally, I felt like I could breathe.

Every breath we take in our lives is a gift of God’s grace.  Indeed, when God created humanity the Bible teaches us that God put his breath into each of us.  Without this breath we would have never been raised out of the dust that God created us from.  In the book of Job, we read his confession, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:5) That’s why we should live in gratitude with the breath in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love.

If you are reading this today, then you have breath in your lungs.  God has gifted you with another day.  Take time now to give thanks to God for the breath that fills your lungs.  Give thanks also for those individuals, living, and breathing, who bring joy into your daily life.  And then give thanks to those who took their last breath and now breathe the clean, fresh air of eternity.  The Psalmist would confess, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6) So, take a deep breath, give thanks to the Lord, and then go live this day for the glory of God.