Friday, October 6, 2017

“In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

(This is part 1 of a series of reflections on current crises and Christian faith)

“In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” (John R.W. Stott)

Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53.3)

“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4.23)

There is much to grieve in our world.

We’ve been living through a time-line of events that seem to be increasing in violence and trauma. Hurricanes. Shootings. Earthquakes. Riots. It’s difficult to recall everything that’s been streaming across our TV screens in just the past six months, but we shouldn’t forget how…

…in May, there was a bombing at a teen concert in Manchester, England, killing 23, injuring 250. …in June a shooter tried to murder a group of US Congressmen during a Congressional Baseball practice, seriously injuring Congressman Steve Scalise; and how in that same month a terror attack on the London Bridge in England, killed 11, injuring 48. …in July, North Korea began a series of ICBMs test launches, raising the specter of nuclear war with the US. …in August, riots erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia during a nationalist rally, ending in an auto homicide of a peaceful protestor.

Then there are the hurricanes – Harvey floods Houston and south Texas; Irma rakes Florida, bringing floodwaters into Jacksonville; and Maria devastates Puerto Rico.

And now this month, a Las Vegas shooter kills 58, wounds over 500 at an outdoor country music festival. The more that investigators dig into the shooter’s life, the scarier the story becomes. He stockpiled weapons for months; he had a cache of explosives; he had planned to attack Chicago’s “Lollapalooza” music festival, or Boston’s Fenway Park, but those plans mysteriously failed. Such insanity. Such sorrow.

How do we avoid losing heart, when our hearts are breaking?  How do we live as followers of Jesus in this land infected with trauma and tension?

As followers of Christ, we need to guard our hearts, to guard our minds, and keep our daily walk with God vibrant.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"It will be good to worship today."

Monday morning, September 11th 2017

5.00 am
Hurricane Irma was battering Jacksonville with gale force winds, flooding an already swollen St Johns River with a foot of rain.

Our house was dark. The electricity was out. I walked downstairs. No use trying to sleep. It felt like we were under attack, and I wanted to be at my post to pray and watch.

I lay on the couch in the family room, dozing, listening, praying while repeating Psalm 121, among other warfare verses that I have put to memory. The storm was at its peak, and it felt like I was engaged in a battle of prayer.

The sound of a hurricane is raw unrelenting power and rage: rain pelting against windows, wind wailing through the trees, myriad mysterious and unidentifiable sounds outside.

But laying there, in the midst of that assault of nature, a peace-giving and joy-filled thought “came to me” – it wasn’t my own brain bringing this up because my brain was overwhelmed with sound and battling to recite scriptures. Yet, there it was: “This afternoon, be ready to lead in some music and song. It will be good to worship today.”

Yes, I thought. That is definitely something to look forward to.  Will do.

10.00 am
The worst of the winds and rain had pulled north. But the ruin and the pain of this storm were just becoming evident.

The National Weather Service used the word “epic” to describe the flooding and damage in Jacksonville. I prefer the word “hellish.” According to John 10.10, we have an enemy who comes to “kill, steal, and destroy.” These are Jesus’ words; he knew something about battling the devil, and winning.

“Kill, steal, and destroy” describe what thousands experienced in Jacksonville as well as in south Florida and the Caribbean. But note this: Jesus also said, “I have come to bring you life, and life in abundance…” In the mud and sorrow that Irma left behind, we saw Jesus’ life in some rather surprising and personal ways…

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Knowing, and not knowing

Today, September 6, 2017, we know a storm is coming. Hurricane Irma. It’s a “Category 5” storm, and is the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record, according to Hurricane experts.

Thanks to Smartphones, and high speed internet connections, we can watch real time radar images, live video links, and the latest predictions and assessments about Irma. So much information and data, all meant to warn us and help us prepare.

As I write this at home here in Jacksonville, we aren’t sure what this storm will bring to us, or when. But we do know it’s coming, and that it has the potential of bringing wide spread damage, and even death.

Thankfully, we are being warned about this; hopefully, lives will therefore be saved. And, in just a few days, we’ll know what this storm will mean.

We seem to be in a strange vortex of “knowing, and not knowing.”

We know this: a storm is working its way towards us, and that it’s big and dangerous.

But we don’t know this: will this hurt us, or pass us by, or miraculously dissolve? For those of us who experienced Hurricane Matthew last year, here it is again: an all too familiar stress of knowing, but not knowing.

This is a dramatic picture of the “knowing, and not knowing” of our journey as Christ followers. Another way to put it, we live in the “already, and not yet.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Please stand and repeat after me"

Twenty-six individuals stood up, from twenty-two separate countries, to take the oath of citizenship.  Different languages, different colors, different stories – but one oath to become citizens of the United States. 

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen…”

My wife and I recently attended a Naturalization ceremony for Global Refugee Day. We were gathered in a large conference room in the downtown library, sitting with a hundred or so other friends and family of those non-citizens who were ready to become citizens. 

There wasn’t any hype in the air – more a mixture of subdued happiness and awe, as they declared, “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

This is not seeker-sensitive vocabulary. This is cutting, final, and “demands my all,” to quote an ancient hymn.

Let’s consider what is required to make this sort of choice:

These people were burning bridges to settle in a new land. This was a solemn but celebrative event. They had left families, land, and loved ones.  And there they all stood, agreeing to be adopted by a new country. Afterwards, my wife and I marveled at the words these new citizens recited. There was no turning back. They were breaking all loyalty and severing all allegiance to their country of origin. There was no wiggle room for moderation. No way out. No compromise. Either they were to become Americans, or not. No middle way.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Daddy, you said..."

When we moved to Jacksonville, our four children ranged in ages from elementary school kids to babies in diapers.  And, as a young family, we were always on the lookout for cheap (free?) family-friendly activities for weekend adventures. Hello, Atlantic Ocean.

It was an easy 20 minutes from our house on the Southside to the beach. So, we often enjoyed Saturday morning trips to the beach. These jaunts usually included a picnic, sand castles, and splashing in the tidal pools. Collecting seashells was always an optional activity.

One week, after planning a Saturday morning beach trip, we had to cancel our plans on the morning of the proposed journey to the shore. As I recall it, the weather was rainy and windy, not exactly kid-friendly conditions.

Obviously, our kids were disappointed – they had been looking forward to the promise of making sand castles and running through water. But, we had no choice but to cancel.

As we sat at the kitchen table that morning to break the sad news, I made the paternal pronouncement, “Kids, we can’t go to the beach today.”

Silence. Then our 7 year old looked up at me, with wide eyes and a scrunched up brow, and said, “But daddy, you said.”

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Going to Church

Does God really care about your address? Does he really have a preference for where you live?  Or does he have more important things to worry about in running the universe than your zip code or house number? 

Here’s a story that demonstrates how God arranged the address of a church building and an apartment complex, just to help a refugee family find a new life.

The church is Main Street Baptist, and the apartment is University Gardens; they’re one mile apart, easy walking distance for the Rafutos.

The Rafutos left everything they had known as “home” to escape the violence of civil war in their homeland of the Congo. They were given a temporary home in a refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania. And after 17 years of living in that camp, they resettled in the U.S. through the work of World Relief. 

While living in the refugee camp, they joined a mission church, and found friends in a worshipping community in the midst of an uncertain future and a dangerous lifestyle.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Refugee helps his mom

It was time to leave Jacksonville and move to Charlotte. Thomas’ uncle works as a doctor up in Charlotte, and has some good leads for a better job there.

It’s a struggle for Refugees, like Thomas, to find employment that offers a living wage. Actually, that’s a struggle that too many Americans can relate to, right?  But it’s especially distressing for Thomas because, before he and his family had to flee their homeland, they enjoyed a stable life in a family business. Civil war erupted; they were targeted by their country’s army simply because of their ethnicity; they literally fled for their lives. 

In Jacksonville, Thomas and his family found friends and a fresh start. There are three school-aged sisters and his single mom to look after in Thomas’ household. 

As is often the case with Refugees, after arriving in the US, they will locate relatives from their homeland or friends from their Refugee Camp. But connecting with them often requires moving to a new city. Thomas’ plan was to move in with his uncle, and wire money to his mom each week. It’s a plan that often works well for families in need.

It was a sad day saying goodbye to my friend. But I had confidence that his plan would serve his family well. My confidence was bolstered when he wanted to make sure that I knew he had saved up three months rent for his mom; that she had the money in a safe place; that she would need some help figuring out how to pay their rent after he left town.