Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 3, 2017

Losing Jesus: Reflections for a New Year

“After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.”  Luke 2:43

Well, friends, the festivities are coming to an end for us as well. Christmas is over, the New Year has arrived, and this week many of us get back to work or school. We return to the regular rhythms of life.  In the midst of this transition, I wonder if we have a tendency to leave Jesus behind as well?

I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic that seems to take place between Christmas Day and New Years Day. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a savior. We tell a story about our need for God’s intervention in our lives. God is our peace, our joy, and our hope!  On New Year’s day, however, we tend to become self-reliant again.  We test out the capacity of our will power.  We set goals, start diets, plan to get in shape, decide to read through the entire Bible, only to fall back into our bad habits by February 1.

I came across an article in the New York Times that cites a study saying 95% of New Year’s resolutions are broken by February. The writer makes this concluding statement, “Studies suggest, then, that willpower is a limited resource.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in setting goals. As the old adage goes, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!” Goals and plans can direct us in helpful ways. But I wonder if we struggle with our attempt to grow because we are relying on a limited resource.  I wonder if our longings for change fall short because we lose sight of our need to stay connected to Christ.  I wonder if we struggle because we have a tendency to leave Jesus behind.

There are a lot of reasons why Jesus gets left behind. Like Mary and Joseph, we can simply go along with the crowd. We can let those around us set the pace and the direction of life without making sure Jesus is with us. Sometimes Jesus gets lost simply because we allow the rhythms of our busy world to set the agenda. Instead of approaching life with the question, “Who is Jesus calling me to be?,” we begin with the question, “What do I have to get done?” And suddenly the demands of everyday life build up and crowd out our deeper calling.

Sometimes, Like Mary and Joseph, we can lose Jesus even in a religious crowd. They are in a group of devout worshippers who are returning after their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the same way, we too may be busy doing religious activities, thinking Jesus is with us when perhaps we are missing the point. We may be doing all kinds of ministry, but perhaps we forget to carve out space to actually look for Jesus and sit with him in the temple and hear what his plans are for us!

Sometimes, Like Mary and Joseph, we lose Jesus because we assume that we know where he is. When Mary and Joseph find Jesus, it says they were astonished. And I wonder – are we ever astonished by Jesus? Are we open to the possibility that he has more to teach us, or that we have something wrong? Are we open to learning new things from him?

N.T. Wright says, “Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood Jesus, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking.” This story is a reminder that we need to be careful that we don’t assume we have Jesus figured out.  If Mary and Joseph were caught off guard by Jesus, perhaps we need to be open to the fact that we have more to learn as well!

Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, the journey back to God will feel like we are going backward. I think of them turning back and finding Jesus. They had walked a whole day and it took them three more days to find him. This was a disruption and an inconvenience. It got in the way of their productivity and their plan. Yet, it was a journey they needed to take.

Sometimes spiritual progress feels like a backward movement. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that it has been those times of hardship, doubt, and disorientation that God has used the most to grow my faith.

Spiritual growth isn’t a straight path. We ought not to be discouraged when we feel like we are circling backward or going over ground we thought we wouldn’t have to cover again. Barry Gillespie writes, “The path isn’t a straight line; it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.”

Friends, for some of us 2017 won’t feel productive. Perhaps you look out on the horizon and see hardship, sickness, grief, or pain. Maybe Jesus seems distant and you’re struggling to see him or find him in your life. Know that God is often in these times. These seasons that feel like backward movement can be times when God is doing some of his greatest work in our lives.

Like Mary and Joseph, we may question Jesus saying, “Why did you do this to us?” Yet, maybe Jesus is in the disruption, the hardship, the backward movement. Maybe he is actually leading us back to what really matters.

Today we begin a New Year. We step out into the unknown full of hope and longing. But before we embark on this journey of 2017 let’s begin with this question – “Where’s Jesus?”

Perhaps, the starting point for this year is not to forge ahead making big plans. Maybe the starting point for us is to sit with Jesus in the temple for a while and listen to what he has to say. This is what Jesus models for us.  Above all the expectations of the world, he reminds us that first and foremost we need to carve out space to listen to God.

As you look ahead to 2017 perhaps you might bring Jesus into the conversation. You might ask Jesus, “What do you have in store for me this year?,” or, “Where do you want to lead me?” These questions are vital for our hope for the future rests on the continual presence of Jesus in our lives.

As we begin 2017 let’s not leave Jesus behind!

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 14, 2016

Christmas for the Down and Out

(The following is an adapted manuscript from this past weeks sermon where I looked at the characters of the Shepherds in Luke 2:8-20)

One of the fixtures in our home right now is the Play School “Little People’s Nativity Set.” This is not a delicate nativity set.  It is a toy – the type of toy that is made to withstand the full contact play of a four-year-old boy.   Various pieces tend to fly across the room and get mashed together mixed up with other sets of toys. So it is not uncommon to find odd guests showing up at the nativity scene.  Sometimes Thomas the Train pays a visit to the manger.  This week James staged a wrestling match between Scooby Doo and one of the angels. Even our Golden Retriever Sophie made her way over to the nativity.  I discovered one of the wise men next to her bed with one of his hands chewed off.   All types of unexpected and odd guests show up at our nativity scene.

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Sophie Looking Guilty With the Handless Wise Man Behind Her

In many ways, this is how the nativity story would have sounded like to first-century listeners.  We’ve become so accustomed to the story that we forget how startling it is.  We have made it this tame, cute, Norman Rockwell scene when in reality it is quite odd. There are all kinds of unexpected people that show up.

The supposed king is born in a down and out nothing of a town.   His parents are poor minorities that can’t find a place that will take them in.  The birth takes place in cowshed surrounded by dirty animals. Not Golden Retrievers mind you, but animals none the less. Three wise men, who were pagan foreigners despised as idolaters by the religious people of the day, show up and bring gifts.  The news about the whole thing is announced to nameless shepherds.

Commentators point out how the shepherds had a questionable reputation in the ancient world.  Chris Seay writes,  “At that time, shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations. Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns.”

Right from the outset of the gospels, we see those on the margins taking center stage.  We begin to see that the kingdom of God is going to be an inclusive kingdom.  Jesus will be a king that makes room for the outcast, the poor, and the marginalized. Those who are looked down upon, those who you would least expect to see, take center stage in a story that would change the world.

This is confirmed as the story unfolds.  The angels say they have good news for “all people.”  When Jesus finally speaks in a couple chapters he says that he has come with good news for the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the lame and the prisoner.

There is a group of musicians from the Phoenix symphony regularly go and play beautiful classical music at the local homeless shelters.  That is the type of scene that our text is portraying.   God sends the angels to sing beautiful music to a group of rough around the edge misfits.  They do not go to a beautiful concert hall.  They do not perform for the elite in society or the people with status and power, but to a group despised shepherds.

This reminds us that the Christmas story is good news for those who can relate to the shepherds.  This story is good news for those of us who feel excluded in some way – for those who feel as if they don’t fit.

Christmas is good news families who don’t live up to the cookie cutter image of the perfect family.  Chris mentioned a couple of weeks ago that 75% of families don’t fit the traditional definition of a family with 2 parents and 2.5 children.  The Christmas story reminds us that if our hearts are broken by divorce; if our kids have gone astray; if family life is hard; there is room for us in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is also good news for those of us who feel weak, for those who feel left behind and excluded in a fast-paced society, for those who are sick, bedridden, or unable to be as productive as we once were.  God says that there is room for you in his kingdom.  There is a place for you.

Christmas is good news for those of us who are weighed down by shame for our past mistakes and our present struggles with sin.  It is interesting to note that the Shepherds respond to the angels with a sense of fear.  I wonder if this indicates a feeling of unworthiness or shame?  A fear that they aren’t worthy to be in the presence of angels? “Are they here to judge me?” “Do they know what I’ve done?”  Stepping into the light is scary because it might reveal who we really are.

My spiritual director gave me a wise word this week.  He said that the enemy wants us to feel uncomfortable around God.  That is one of the lies of the evil one.  The lie that says we’re too messed up to come to God, to be in his presence.  But God tells us to not be afraid.  He meets us in the depths.  He comes to be with us despite our struggles and our shame.   Others may despise us, and we may despise ourselves, but God sees us as worthy and able to receive the glory of God!

The Christmas story is good news for Longview and Kelso.  One of my friends commented that this story reminds us that the divine drama of God plays itself out in struggling small towns.  That God’s kingdom enfolds places with rising homelessness and economic struggles.  You don’t have to live in Manhattan to be part of something significant and important. There is room for Longview and Kelso in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is good news for those our culture often rejects – for the poor, the refugee, the homeless in our midst.   This passage issues a challenge to those of us who read it from a position of privilege.  It calls us to respond with humility, generosity, and hospitality to those whom Jesus seeks to elevate. The good news is not just for me. It is for all those who are feeling defeated, rejected, and on the margins of life.

This is more than a call to be charitable to the poor. It is an invitation to treat those on the margins with dignity. To begin to see people who our culture rejects as people of value – people that Jesus counted as worthy to be the central figures in his kingdom.

Julie and I had the privilege of spending time with a missionary named Joel down in Guatemala one summer. He works with people who live in slums and prisons.  He spends his time with those who are often forgotten and despised.  One of the things he said to us is that grace pools in low places.  Grace pools among those who have been displaced to the depths of society.

Thomas Merton writes:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”

I wonder if God is present with those for whom there is no room because they are open to his coming? Maybe he chose to reveal the message to the shepherds because they were ready to receive it.  Maybe the poor and the excluded are at the scene because they are the ones looking for hope.  They are not attached to wealth, status and power because they are poor.

One of my professors Chris Rice once said, “to the extent that our lament is shallow our hope will be shallow.” What he means is that we will not be receptive to hope unless we have come to terms with our pain.   The joy of Christmas won’t resonate if we have distracted ourselves and numbed ourselves to the pain of life.

Maybe part of our journey toward Christ this Advent season is to take the risk of naming our brokenness.  To create space to lament where we feel excluded, weak, vulnerable, or weighed down by shame. To take the risk of journeying to those low places both in our own lives and in society so that we might discover again our need for God’s grace.

Have you ever walked into a climactic moment of a movie without having watched the first part?  You see other people crying and showing emotion and you don’t get it.  The joy or the resolution falls flat.  You’re sitting there wondering why everyone is so emotional.

That is what celebrating Christmas without Advent is like.  That is what celebrating the hope of a savior is like when we haven’t come to terms with our need for a savior.

Advent is a season where we rewind the story of scripture to the time when people were longing for light to dawn in the darkness. It is a time where we prepare for the coming of God by coming terms with our brokenness.

The shepherds model this for us.  For you see they are so overcome with the hope and the joy of the message that they are able to leave everything behind and go in search for king. The message of the angels is so compelling that they drop everything. They risk losing their jobs and having their sheep taken by predators or thieves. They are ready to leave these things behind because they have heard about a deeper hope.  The angels have told them that there is a new kingdom coming where they will belong.

May the wonder and the hope of the Christmas message compel us to set aside the barriers of our world and step towards this newborn king. For to all of us who, for one reason or another, feel unworthy, excluded, and hopeless, God says to us:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

 

 

 

 

The anxiety about the current election season is hard to avoid. It is flooding our Facebook feeds and working its way into our daily conversations.  One thing I think most of us seem to agree on is that we will be glad when November 9 is here!

What I’d like to offer in this article are some thoughts about how we might deal with our political anxiety.  I wrote a similar article during the last election, but I wanted to revisit the material and add some additional thoughts.

This article is not about debating the issues or evaluating the candidates. I think most of us have had ample opportunity to hash out and debate these issues by now.  Instead, I want to suggest some spiritual practices that I think help us tend to our soul and protect our relationships during a divisive campaign.

  1. Prayer

If anybody could advise us on how to deal with political anxiety it would be David. His life was marked with constant political instability. He dealt with civil wars, military coups, and betrayal from his own allies. Yet, David often directed this anxiety to God in prayer. Prayer enabled David to cultivate an awareness of God in the midst of difficult situations. In Psalm 46, for example, he speaks about how the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms are tottering, but as he recalls God’s power and faithfulness he is able to gain perspective. He concludes his prayer saying, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold.”

I don’t know what the outcome of the election will be this year, but I do know this. God will still be God on November 9! In the Lord’s Prayer, we are invited to rest in the hope that God’s kingdom, power, and glory will endure forever! This is not only a future hope. We can trace this promise through history. The church has survived and even thrived through political situations that are much more dire than what we face today.

What might happen if I replaced some of the time I spend reading news headlines and instead rested in the presence of God and expressed my anxiety to Him? Perhaps, like David, I might be able to be still and remember that God is God.

  1. Protecting Our Relationships

Most of us have strong opinions about the current political election. In the midst of this, we need to be careful that we do not take our cues from the toxic type of debate going on in our society.

In his book, What’s so Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey writes, “Politics draws lines between people; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across those lines and dispenses grace. That does not mean, of course, that Christians should not involve themselves in politics. It simply means that as we do so we must not let the rules of power displace the command to love.”

As Christians, we need to make sure that we do not let a bitter root of dissension grow up within our communities. One helpful antidote to dissension is humility. The us-versus-them mentality of partisan politics can create a situation where we elevate our virtues and overstate our opponent’s vices. In response to this, we ought to humbly recognize our own shortcomings and biases. N.T. Wright reminds us that, “the line between good and evil does not run between us and them. The line between good and evil runs right through every human heart.”

Another important virtue needed to counteract dissension is empathy.  In her book Twelve Steps to the Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong emphasizes the need to cultivate empathy for the things that are driving our opponent’s view of reality.  One practice she suggests is to try and defend your opponent’s view.  If you have a sharp disagreement with someone perhaps you could grab a coffee and debate the issues by taking the other person’s side!

3. Prophetic Words

At the same time, I think it is important for us as Christians to speak up and defend the values of the kingdom of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The bible is full of examples of prophets who speak out against injustice. We usually think of prophets as “future-tellers” but their main role in scripture is to be “truth-tellers.”

So there is a place to speak.  Grace does not mean we cease to be discerning.  One of the false narratives I have heard this election cycle is that we should let leaders off the hook because we are all sinners.  To be sure, we are called to humbly forgive others, but forgiving someone doesn’t mean we necessarily trust them.  When Jesus says, “do not judge,” he is not saying, “do not discern.”  The intent of Jesus’ statement is that we do not pass final judgment.  As Dale Bruner says, we are called to be discerning, not damning.  Yes, we forgive, yes, we don’t pass final judgment, but we still are called to hold leaders accountable.  So there is a place to speak out against things we think are wrong.

Yet, as Paul reminds us, we are called to, “speak the truth in love.” One of my professors once told me that there is an important difference between a prophet and a critic. A critic simply likes to cut people down whereas a prophet speaks the truth because he or she loves the people and desires their best.

Furthermore, the truth we speak is not to be guided by our political affiliation but by our understanding of the values and teachings of Jesus. Timothy Keller observes “the churches in America are often controlled by the surrounding political culture than by the spirit of Jesus and the prophets.” This, I believe, expands our notion of what is true and will likely cause us to speak out against issues on both sides of the aisle. This orientation also protects us from sacrificing the values of the gospel for the sake of our political alignment.

  1. Perspective through Gratitude

Finally, while our anxiety and frustrations are valid, I believe there is still reason to be very grateful for our current situation. There is a profound juxtaposition going on right now between the political crisis in America and the political crisis in Syria.  Let us be grateful that we are in a country that does not resolve differences through extreme violence. Our politicians may anger us, but they are not using chemical weapons on their citizens. Democracy can be messy and frustrating but it is a blessing compared to totalitarian regimes. As Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form of government.”

More importantly, as Christians, we believe that we have a hope that transcends the hardship of living in the world. As Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” As Paul says in Romans, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Perhaps this current political impasse is an opportunity for us to evaluate what we really trust in.

 

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 18, 2016

Discerning God’s Voice in Times of Transition

 

crossroadThe season of transition that we are entering as a church is also a season of discernment. This fall our transition team will be facilitating a process of listening and discernment for us as a church. There are a lot of questions on the horizon. What should the next chapter of Longview Community Church look like? What type of leadership do we need? What is our vision as a church?

I think many of us struggle to know how discernment actually works. Does God really speak to us? If so, how? How do we know if what we are hearing is from God or is simply our human agenda clothed in Christian language?

When I took a course on spiritual discernment from Gordon Smith at Regent College, he argued that evangelicals have a very limited understanding of discernment. Sometimes we talk about God opening and closing doors, but what if there are no doors open, or five doors open that could all be good possibilities? Other times we talk about “having peace about the decision,” but what if that peace is simply the result of us getting what we want instead of what God wants? Our language around discernment needs some more depth to it.

This summer I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking around the topic of spiritual discernment and there are a few common themes that have emerged for me.

First, there are some important prerequisites to discernment.  If we are not committed to our own spiritual transformation we will struggle to know what God’s voice sounds like when we need guidance. Dallas Willard writes, “Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and him” (Willard, Hearing God). Discernment requires us to know what God’s voice sounds like. If we aren’t spending time with God we are not cultivating a listening posture. So the disciplines of scripture meditation, silence and solitude, prayer, and worship provide an important foundation for discernment.

Another prerequisite for discernment is that we develop a humble openness to God’s leading. Thomas Green writes, “Discernment presupposes a person who truly desires to accomplish God’s work . . . it further presupposes a person who is truly open to be taught by, and led by, the Lord.” (Green, Weeds Among the Wheat). Discernment requires us to be able to echo Jesus’s words in the garden of Gethsemane when he says, “not my will, but yours be done.” Ruth Haley Barton suggests that we begin the discernment process by asking, “Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?” (Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together). Sometimes fear about what people think or our attachment to comfort, possessions, or success can tip the scales prevent us from getting an accurate read on the situation.

These prerequisites are important but they still leave us with our original question. How do we actually hear God’s voice? I want to suggest that scripture points us to three ways of hearing. The first way that God speaks to us is through scripture. Scripture sometimes gives us very specific answers to what we should and should not do. If we are wondering whether God is calling us to rob a bank or not, the answer is pretty clear! The general will of God is revealed to us through the word of God.

Often, however, the bible doesn’t speak specifically to the decision at hand. The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly who to marry or whether to take a new job or not. In this case, it is important for us to consider whether the decision we are considering lines up with the character of God and the general principles of scripture. Will the decision we make lead us to love God and others? Does it bring about the fruit of the spirit? Dallas Willard suggests we ask whether the impression we have about a decision lines up with the tone, quality, and content of Jesus’ voice that we encounter in the Bible (Willard, Hearing God).

Paul says that Christ-followers are “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:1). As we engage with the scriptures our mind begins to be fashioned after the mind of Christ. This enables us to discern the specifics of life from a Christlike way of thinking, which is often different than a worldly way of thinking. In the context of choosing a pastor, for example, we may tend to look primarily at external factors like experience, education, and track record of success. The scriptures, though, often emphasize the need to look at a person’s heart. In the choosing of David, for example, God says to Samuel “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” By immersing ourselves in the Word of God, then, we begin to look at situations the way the Lord does.

The second way we hear God is by paying attention to the movement of our hearts. The scriptures teach us that the movement of the Spirit leads us to love, joy and peace (Galatians 6). Paul says that through prayer we receive a “Peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4). It is important to note that this is describing an affective response. Peace and joy are things we experience not just think about.

Ignatius of Loyola draws on this biblical tradition by pointing out that one of the ways we discern God’s leading is by noticing whether there is an underlying consolation in our hearts. He believes that if we are in God’s will it will be accompanied by a sense of rightness, hope, and peace, even if we are called to a hard task. By contrast, when we are outside of God’s will we will experience a desolation marked by a troubled spirit.

A practical exercise one can do when seeking a decision is to imagine you say yes to a decision and notice what affective responses emerge for you. You can then imagine a no to a decision and do the same thing.

The affect aspect of our spiritual journey and the discernment process is something that we are sometimes to reluctant to embrace as westerners. Our culture tends to privilege detached rational analysis over affective knowledge.  Yet as Jonathan Edwards (a pretty intellectual guy himself) acknowledges, “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.” In other words, the scriptures testify to the fact that our encounter with God touches not only our mind but our emotions and our experience. God is not just an idea to figure out but a living being that we experience and relate to.Y

If we are honest I think we all rely on the affective aspect of decision-making. When you decided to get married I suspect that you didn’t just do a cold cognitive calculus about the decision. You didn’t just make the pros and cons list and evaluate the data about your potential spouse. There was most likely an accompanying sense of joy, passion, or rightness that moved you toward that decision.

The same thing happens in spiritual discernment. I remember having a major breakthrough in my decision to enter ministry when my professor asked me, “What is your heart saying?” At first, I thought that this was a trivial question. Yet, as I reflected on it I experienced a deep consolation in my heart about entering the pastoral vocation. I had been overthinking this decision and made the most extensive pros and cons list you can imagine, yet this simple question brought a deep and lasting clarity.

Of course, we must always test this consolation. We need to bring the heart into conversation with biblical thinking. Sometimes we can have peace for the wrong reasons. We may have a false consolation because the decision gets us off the hook or because it furthers our worldly agenda. So we must test for false peace (Gordon Smith, The Voice of Jesus).

This is where the last component of discernment is important. We also discern by entering into conversation with the community of faith. When the early church made big decisions, they did so in a group (Acts 15). They listened to scripture and the Holy Spirit together and sought consensus through dialogue and prayer. The reality is that we can interpret both scripture and spiritual experience incorrectly at times. That is why it is important for us to be in conversation with other trusted friends and guides as we seek to hear God’s voice. God often speaks to us through other people.

How might these principles for discernment help you as you seek to hear God’s voice in your life? What aspects of discernment might you need to put more emphasis on in your journey?

Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 24, 2016

Finding God in the In-Between Spaces of Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALife is full of in-between spaces.  We always seem to be transitioning from one thing to another.   We wait for children to be born, for a new job to open up, for college to start, and for retirement to arrive.  As a church, we are about to enter an in-between space as we begin a pastoral search process.

These in-between spaces can be hard to navigate.  Transitions can cause anxiety, impatience, and uncertainty.  I remember the season in my life when I was in the in-between space between graduating from seminary and waiting for my first call to a church.  There were a couple of months where nothing seemed to be coming together and I spent some of my days watching my sisters kids while she worked.  It was frustrating and confusing.  I started to question why I had just spent 3 years doing a masters program so I could be a babysitter!

Where is God during these times?  What is God up to when we haven’t fully arrived at our next destination?

Jeremiah 29 offers some helpful perspective here.   Many of us are familiar with Jeremiah 29:11.  Here the prophet says, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” These are comforting words as we look out at the horizon of life.  God speaks a word of hope and encouragement for those of us who are looking ahead.  We can face the future with hope because he has plans to prosper us.

What we often overlook, however, is that this passage was written to a group of people who have just been told that they will be in exile for the next 70 years (Jer. 29:10). This reminds us that the journey toward this preferred future involves navigating long disorienting in-between spaces.

 I wonder if the recipients of this letter from the prophet Jeremiah thought that it was sent to the wrong address!  How could Jeremiah be so positive when the foreseeable future was going to be difficult and uncertain?

When we look more closely at the passage, however, we begin to discover that part of God’s promises are going to be worked out in this frustrating in-between space.   In vs. 12 Jeremiah tells Israel that as a result of coming through 70 years of exile, “you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find when you search for Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you.”

 The prosperity that Jeremiah speaks of is not so much material prosperity as it is spiritual prosperity.   As they face the hardship of exile they will turn back to God and begin to seek to him with all their heart.  God is doing important work in this in-between space.  The uncertainty of the present exile is providing an opportunity for the Israelites to confront the idols of their heart and to grow in their trust and love for God.

This reminds us that the in-between spaces of life are not wasted on us.  On the contrary, God often uses the seasons of uncertainty and transition to do some important work in our hearts.  These are seasons where we have the opportunity to grow deeper in character and faith.  The in-between spaces of life are part of the way in which God is working out his preferred future for our lives.

 My hope is that as we navigate the challenges of the in-between spaces of life we will find ourselves growing in our faith and awareness of God.    These seasons are not meant to be viewed as a holding pattern.  Sometimes God’s greatest kingdom work is being done in times of transition.  Let’s be on the lookout, then, for the way God is at work in the in-between spaces of life.

Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 10, 2016

Wrong Units of Measurement

One of the things James has been learning lately is the different units of measurement.  Every once and a while I overhear him using the wrong type of measurement. The other day he was measuring different things around the house with a tape measure; however, instead of using inches he was using pounds. The stool in our kitchen is 34 pounds high and the rug is 56 pounds long!

At our annual meeting last week I used this story as an analogy for how we go about measuring the spiritual life.  I reflected on whether we sometimes use the wrong units of measurement.

It is tempting to jump straight to external data to determine how we are doing spiritually.  We might do this on an individual level by looking at how often we go to church or participate in religious activities.  As pastors, we often do this on a corporate level.  The unit of measurement is the budget, the attendance records, or the number of programs we offer.

These units of measurement certainly have their place.  In the book of Acts, the effect of Pentecost leads to an exponential growth in new disciples.  God has a heart for reaching people of all nations.  Behind numbers are real people that God loves.

Yet, external numbers are not the only unit of measurement we are given in scripture.  While Jesus cares about the breadth of our outreach, he also cares about the depth of our discipleship.   At the beginning of John 6, a large crowd of over 5000 people is following Jesus; yet, by the end of the chapter, there are only a few left.  In vs 60, we read, “many of his disciples said, ‘this is a hard teaching, who can accept it.”  Jesus seems to be focused less on crowds and more on disciples who are willing to follow him whole-heartedly.

As the contemporary church struggles to grow and thrive in a post-Christian culture we often go to great lengths to make Christianity easy and convenient.  My friend Ryan offers a helpful assessment of this trend in one of his recent blog posts.  He writes:

Two huge factors in our shaping context are individualism and consumerism. Church is something that people do if and when they feel like it and often on their own terms. Our need of it is much less comprehensive and much more selective. It is something we do if we have time, or if we’re looking for a spiritual boost or a bit of inspiration . . .  We choose churches like we choose products, selecting those that best reflect our own self-understanding and that speak to our own personal hopes and ambitions for ourselves and for the world. I’d like a double-shot of certainty with some political conservatism, please… I’ll have a low-doctrine, eco-friendly, peace and justice church, please. And go light on the evangelism. To go.

It is tempting for us to adapt the Christian message to fit the preferences of our contemporary consumeristic culture.  I suspect Jesus’ approach to marketing would not fare well in this cultural context.  At times it sounds like he is trying to talk people out of following him.   He says that if people want to follow him they are going to have to renounce their will and take up their cross.  I can’t see that working very well on a church billboard or an outreach flyer!

I am currently reading the Institutes of John Cassian.  John Cassian spent a number of years visiting the monks of the Egyptian desert.  The Institutes capture the seriousness by which these early Christians pursue God.  In one chapter he records the way in which a new monk is integrated into the community.  He writes, “One, then, who seeks to be admitted to the monastery is never received before he gives, by lying outside the doors for ten days or even longer, evidence of his perseverance, as well as of humility and patience.”

I was joking with a friend the other day about how much resistance the contemporary church would get if it used this model for a new member class.  If you want to join Longview Community Church we’ll make you sit outside the front door for 10 days and see if you have the perseverance to take up your cross and follow Jesus!

To be sure, the desert fathers often swing to the other extreme by elevating the human will too much in the pursuit of God. I think the monk who came up with this plan was pretty off base. Nevertheless, these startling, hyperbolic stories sometimes serve to jolt us out of our apathy.  Have we really counted the cost of discipleship?  Do we really want to follow Christ? Do we want Jesus on his terms or ours?

This can sound harsh and discouraging; however, at the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him is his deep love for humanity.  If we only half-heartedly follow Jesus we will miss out on the “life of abundance” (John 10:10) that he has in store for us.  Any talk about the “cost of discipleship,” must be balanced with a recognition of the “cost of non-discipleship.”  Dallas Willard writes:

“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, nondisicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.

In other words, we are selling our self short if we place our walk with God on the periphery of life.  The downside to consumer spirituality is that it never brings about the depth that we long for.  By ignoring the call to give up our life we fail to gain the true life that Christ has in store for us.

As we consider how we measure the spiritual life, let’s be sure not to leave out the dimension of depth.  I suspect that when we take this aspect seriously the breadth of our impact on society will take care of itself.

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. How do you measure a healthy spiritual life?
  2. In what ways is Jesus calling you to a deeper commitment to follow him?
  3. What are some of the barriers that need to be removed so that you can follow Christ more fully?
  4. What would help you follow Christ more fully?
  5. How has God promised to be with you on this journey?
Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 28, 2016

Easter in a Graveyard

(The following post is the manuscript from a sermon I gave yesterday at a community Easter sunrise service that was held at a local cemetery.  It is based on John 20:11-18.)

A couple of years ago, in the middle of singing triumphant hymns about Christ’s resurrection at an Easter service, one of our ushers handed me a stack of prayer cards. As I read through these prayer requests with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” in the background, I experienced a troubling dissonance in my heart.

“Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” “Please pray for an 18-month-old girl who is struggling to gain weight and breathe properly because of Cystic Fibrosis.”

“Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!” “Please pray for my nephew who is back in rehab for alcohol abuse.”

“Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!” “Pray for my husband who is out of work and is struggling with a deep depression.”

“Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!” “The Melcher family requests prayer for the Pearson family, who lost their 2-year-old in a tragic accident last Monday.”

It was this card that broke me. Tears began to well up in my eyes. The pain of life interrupted the hope of Easter. The contrast between the triumph of resurrection and the reality of brokenness in our world was hard to reconcile.

Easter can be a hard day for those who are in a season of grief. A friend of mine told me that she hasn’t been able to attend Easter Sunday since her husband passed away a couple of years ago. It is too hard. The celebration of resurrection seems premature when you are walking through the shadow of death.

Perhaps some of you can relate. This Easter Sunday we stand in a graveyard.  It is a place where some of our loved ones are buried. It is a place that reminds us of the pain of loss.

Yet, it is precisely in this kind of place where the first Easter happens. Easter does not take place in a large cathedral. Easter is not accompanied with a brass section belting out triumphant tunes. Easter does not happen around a bountiful dinner table full of family and food. No, Easter takes place in a graveyard next to a grieving woman named Mary.

Mary is not unlike my friend who finds it hard to go to church on Easter. Mary is so clouded by grief that she is unable to see the signs of resurrection that are right in front of her. The trauma of Jesus’ death on the cross and the pain of losing her beloved friend and teacher have cast a shadow of despair that is so dark that she initially mistakes Jesus for a gardener.

I wonder if that might describe us as well. Perhaps the pain we have witnessed has made it hard for us to see any signs of God. Perhaps tears have clouded our vision. Perhaps disappointment has made us reluctant to hope. Perhaps doubt prevents us from even trying to look for God anymore.

If you find yourself in this place you are not alone. This is the exact context where the first Easter happens. This is where Mary finds herself on that first Easter Sunday.

Flower Cross 2014Yet, Mary does not remain in despair. As the story unfolds something changes. This grieving woman ends up leaving the graveyard with a renewed hope and a renewed purpose in life. Easter intersects with her grief and leaves her transformed.  So what happened?  What brought about the change?

Part of the change is the result of Mary’s receptivity.  I think it is helpful to notice that Mary does not prematurely leave the graveyard. While the other disciples return to their homes after seeing the empty tomb, Mary stays behind and weeps.  Then, when asked what she is searching for, Mary says, “they have taken my Lord.”  Despite witnessing the crucifixion, she is still referring to Jesus as her Lord.   This suggests that she has not completely given up hope.

Mary is also given space by Jesus to work through her grief and name her reality. She is asked, “Why are you weeping? What are you looking for?” These questions are not to be understood as a rebuke. No, these questions are rooted in compassion. Mary is given space to name her grief and come to terms with her reality.

Chris Rice writes, “To the extent that our lament is shallow, our hope will be shallow.” Before Mary can encounter hope she needs to first acknowledge her pain.   By staying with her grief and wrestling through her confusion she has placed herself in a position of receptivity. She is actively seeking God and trying to make sense of her circumstances.

This is part of her the process of healing, but it is not the main part of it. Receptivity isn’t helpful if there is nothing to receive.  No, the transformation that takes part in Mary’s life is not solely about what she does but what God does.

With great grace and great love, Jesus has come in search of Mary.   The grace of Easter Sunday is that Jesus has come in search of the very people who earlier in the week had abandoned him in his time of need.  Jesus has come for his disciples.  He has come for Mary. The breakthrough that happens in her life is when she hears him call her name. As she hears Jesus’ tender voice of love she sees the risen Christ.

Thomas Long tells the story of a woman he knows named Mary Ann Bird (1). Mary Ann had a rough childhood. She was born with a cleft palate and had lopsided feet. As such, she was often the target of ridicule from kids at school.

One year she had a school teacher named Miss Leonard. At the beginning of the year, teachers were required to administer a hearing test. Kids would come forward and the teacher would whisper something into their ear. It was often a simple phrase – perhaps a comment about the weather, or an observation about something in the classroom.

Mary Ann had some hearing problems and she was understandably anxious about this test. However, when it was her turn, Miss Leonard whispered in her ear, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.”

This was one of those life-changing moments for Mary Ann. A word of compassion cut through her despair and grief. Her teacher had called her by name and spoke a word of love to her.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear we will encounter the signs of beauty, truth, and grace that are around us. We see signposts to God’s love and power in the kindness of people like Miss Leonard. We also see signposts to God’s grace and power in creation.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend who is close to death. We were wrestling with the mystery of what lies beyond the grave. When death is imminent the question about eternity becomes more than a theological exercise. Doubt about the possibility of resurrection is common. In the midst of that doubt we reflected on this observation from Frederick Buechner:

“Once before out of the abyss of the unborn, the uncreated, the not-yet, you and I who from all eternity had been nothing became something. Out of non-being we emerged into being. And what Jesus promises is resurrection, which means that once again this miracle will happen, and out of death will come another realm of life. Not because by our nature there is part of us that does not die, but because by God’s nature he will not let even death separate us from him finally.

Because he loves us. In love he made us and in love he will mend us. In love he will have us his true children before he is through, and in order to do that, one life is not enough, God knows.” – Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Buechner suggests that the miracle of this life is ample proof of the possibility of resurrection. When we doubt the possibility of miracles we ought to consider the miracle we are already experiencing.  Perhaps creation is in itself a signpost to the hope of resurrection.

This text invites us to remain open and receptive to the signs of hope that surround us. Perhaps one practice you might consider this Easter season is to end your day by taking note of the signs of beauty, truth, and goodness you have encountered throughout the day.  Jesuit priest James Martin writes that when he started to incorporate this practice into his life he began to realize how “beautiful his yesterdays were.” When he takes time to look and listen for signs of God’s presence and goodness he realizes how many signs of resurrection are around him.

I believe that God continues to meet us in the graveyards of life. Just as he came in search of Mary he comes in search of us.  In a world full of pain and heartbreak it is easy for us to miss the signs of hope in our midst. The Easter story invites us to not leave the graveyard prematurely. We are invited to wait, look, and listen for the signs of resurrection.  We are invited to listen to the still small voice of God that calls each of us by name.

(1) I came across this story from Scott Hozee at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-day-c/?term=Easter)

Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 14, 2016

A Franciscan Benediction

Last night we hosted our Syrian Refugee event with guests speakers Hazar Jaber and Miles Gilchrist.  Thanks to everyone who showed up.  We had a packed house with standing room only.   After the event people asked if I could post a link to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) so that they might be able to donate some funds to this organization.  Hazar has been actively involved in this organization and explained how they are uniquely positioned to get help to people in Syria.  SAMS is actively trying to provide healthcare for people caught in the crossfire of the ongoing civil war.  Here is the link: https://www.sams-usa.net/foundation/

Secondly, many of you asked if I could post a copy of the Franciscan benediction I used to end the evening.   Here are the words.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.
Amen.

Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 27, 2016

Taizé Service this Sunday

Hi Everyone,

Tomorrow evening (Feb 28), we will be hosting our quarterly Taizé contemplative prayer service.  If you are in town and could use a quiet space for prayer and worship be sure to join us.  The service begins at 6:30pm in the Gebert Chapel.

Slide1

“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John 19:25-27

John and Mary must have felt helpless as they stood there watching Jesus hang on the cross.   There was nothing they could do.  Jesus, the one they hoped would be the Messiah, had been unjustly accused and was now being brutally tortured in front of their eyes.

We also to bear witness to deep problems and injustices in our world.  Last week I came across an article in a recent issue of Time magazine about the Syrian refugee crisis and I could barely look at the pictures.  The situation seems so irredeemable and complicated.

The problems we read about in the news or encounter in our community can have a paralyzing effect on us.  Yesterday I had two different conversations with friends who were overwhelmed by the problem of poverty in our community.  When we take the wide angle view of the problems in our community and our world we can feel helpless.

What strikes me is how Jesus speaks into this situation.  In the midst of the chaos of the cross, and in the face of deep injustice and torture, Jesus says to John, “here is your mother,” and to Mary, “here is your son.” In a recent sermon on this text, Pastor John suggested that Jesus is calling us to respond to the deep problems of our world with small acts of love.  Jesus invites us to replace the wide angle lens with a telephoto lens.  Instead of being paralyzed by the big picture, Jesus invites us to focus in on the small ways we can make the world a better place.  John and Mary cannot put an end to the injustice and the torture of the cross but they can choose to love and support each other.

As we journey with Jesus to the cross this Lenten season, I want to invite you to be aware of the small ways you can promote love and shalom in the midst of a broken and fearful world.  Not all of us are positioned to make a major impact on large world problems, but we can do something.

I also want to invite you to make a small difference in the Syrian refugee crisis. On the evening of Sunday, March 13th we will be hosting a local Syrian couple Hazar Jaber and her husband Hani.   Hani and Hazar run Happy Kids Dentistry in Longview.  Out of deep love and concern for their native country, they have been using their gifts to advocate for and serve the refugees of the Syrian civil war.  They have led medical missions to the refugee camps in Jordan and continue to devote time raising awareness and funds for this ongoing crisis.

The devastating headlines coming out of Syria can have a paralyzing effect.  The civil war is complex and the suffering of those caught in the crossfire is extreme.   We know the need is great, but it is difficult to know how we can help.  Perhaps, though, one of the ways we can make a difference is by simply taking the time to listen to Hazar and Hani’s story.

This week Hazar wrote me the following note:

I just came back from SAMs ( Syrian American medical society) meeting with mixed emotions.  On one hand seeing the suffering of people and children is nerve racking, on the other hand seeing people from all over the world and faiths trying to help them is uplifting. I am on my way back as we speak, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to come and talk to your group  . . . My goal is to educate and show people ways to get involved. So I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity.

 

Hosting an evening to raise awareness for the crisis doesn’t seem like a big thing; however, I was reminded that this small act of solidarity does mean something to Hazar.  In the midst of this huge crisis, the simple act of caring enough to listen to our Syrian neighbors is important.

We are going to meet in the chapel on March 13th at 6:30pm.  Hazar is going to bring some Syrian desserts and coffee, I’ll offer a short meditation on Jesus’ heart for refugees, and then Hazar will talk with us about the Syrian refugee situation and how we might be able to help in small ways.  Our own Mike Bartlett might take some time to share about his participation in a recent medical mission trip to the refugee camps in Jordan. I hope you can join us!

 

 

 

 

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