When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good guy. Job was a really good guy with a really good life.  He was rich; he had a big, loving family; and he was exceptionally devoted to God. But then! God had a chat with Satan (aka, “The Adversary,” aka, “The Accuser”).  Satan pointed out that Job’s good behavior might be inextricably linked to his good life situation.  To prove that wasn’t the case, God gave Satan the go-ahead to take away Job’s good life.  Then Job lost everything, rapid-fire:  livestock, servants, children, and finally, his health. Our story resumes with Job sitting on the ground and covered in sores.  Job is accompanied by a few friends; they’re debating the causes of and solutions to his problems. Job’s friend, Eliphaz, has just told him to repent – a frequent solution presented by the friends.  “You did something wrong, so stop whatever bad thing you’re doing and apologize to God!”  But Job knows better, and so do we.  Job hasn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, Job was doing everything right; his suffering came out of nowhere.  Job would like the chance to take his case before God and defend himself.  There’s just one problem: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). In other words:  Job can’t find God. Logically, this makes sense.  The test of Job’s goodness wouldn’t work if God showed back up too quickly.  God needs to step...
Bad Things Happen to Good People

Bad Things Happen to Good People

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 This is the story of a good guy named Job. And Job was a super good guy.  He wasn’t a Christian – Job lived long before Christ was born – but he sounds an awful lot like the kind of Christian I aspire to be.  He turned away from anything evil and turned toward God with all his respect and devotion.  He told the truth and did the right thing.  He got up early so he could make offerings to God.  He wanted his kids to not only do and say the right things, but even think the right things. I’d like to be more like Job. I have a feeling everyone wanted to be more like Job. Job was a really good guy. And why wouldn’t he be?  Look at his very good life! Job was straight-up rich.  He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 oxen, and 500 donkeys.  We’re also told that he had “many” servants.  Considering all those eating, pooping, and wandering animals – well, I’d dare say that necessitated a very many servants, indeed. Now, money can’t buy you love – but maybe 11,500 livestock can.  Job had 10 children – 7 sons and 3 daughters – and they all got along.  They were like best friends, constantly having each other over for dinner.  Oh the infinite parental joy, to sit at a meal with all your adult children around the table, laughing and enjoying each other! So, yes:  Job was a really good guy.  But he also had a super-good life.  And when you have it so good… then maybe being...
Where’s God?

Where’s God?

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22 If you think the Bible is boring, you need to read Esther.  It’s an action-packed story of drama and betrayal and heroes and villains.  It’s so good, it’s worth recapping the whole book.  But as I do, you have a job:  I want you to listen carefully for when God shows up. Ready? It starts with a King who has a huge kingdom, stretching from India to Ethiopia.  This King holds a 180 day banquet (yes, 1-8-0).  When it was supposed to be over, they invited more people and kept on partying for 7 more days.  Festivities like that are fun but they don’t always encourage good decision-making.  Like what the King decides to do after his 187-day banquet:  call for his Queen so he can parade her around like a pet in a dog show.  The Queen doesn’t want to be a dog on parade.  She refuses. The King is outraged.  So are his consultants.  “All the women are going to start standing up to their men!” they say.  “You better make an example of your Queen!” they say. The King takes the crown from his Queen as punishment.  And so begins a sort of first season of The Bachelor, as young women are gathered from all over the kingdom for a year’s worth of spa treatments that will make one of them King-worthy.  A Jew named Mordecai encourages his adopted daughter to play the game… and as soon as I tell you her name, you’ll know who won. Esther.  Make that:  Queen Esther! Right around the same time, Mordecai overhears a plan...
You Should Laugh

You Should Laugh

Genesis 18:1-15 Andrews United Methodist Church, what is God calling us to be? If you’re a regular attender of Andrews UMC, I bet you know the answer:  “A welcoming congregation of grace and growth through Jesus Christ.”   Every Sunday we repeat that call and response to remind us of our mission.  We are radically welcoming, and we are uniquely Wesleyan in our community (Wesleyans being about an abundance of grace and a lifetime of spiritual growth).  That’s who God has called us to be! But that clear mission is still open-ended.  We can be welcoming, full of grace, and intentional about growth in a lot of different ways.  How is God calling us to live into that mission? I believe that God will tell us.  Our job is to listen, and listen we have. Earlier this month we hosted 4 “Listening Sessions” at our church.  Each of these was attended by 15 or so church members who were prompted by questions to talk for 90 minutes about their loves and concerns and hopes for our church.  Meanwhile, I sat in the room and (mostly) resisted the urge to chime in. If you’re keeping score, that’s 6 hours of material from about 60 different people in our church.  Throughout, some themes began to emerge around what we value most, what could threaten those values, and where we hope to be in 3-5 years. What is God calling us to be? Let’s listen, and find out. What we value most:  Being a welcoming and caring community of faith. We’re a loving, friendly place for everyone – with a special place in...
Words & Rudders & Bridles

Words & Rudders & Bridles

James 3:1-12 I love words. My days revolve around words. When I wake up, I read the Word and then journal some of my own words in response. Then I spend much of my day using words to talk to people, and when there aren’t any people around, I’m prone to talk to myself. I have fun playing with word choice when I write sermons and blogs and articles. I’m even using words right now! I love words! And boy – do I hate words. Maybe “hate” is too strong – but words are dangerous, aren’t they? They fly out of our mouths with far too little regulation. They show our hands, betray our poker faces. They get misinterpreted. We go to bed at night or wake up in the morning thinking, “Why did I say that?” Words: So good; so harmful. James knows that the danger is real. He says it like this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5-6). And if that doesn’t convince you of the imminent danger, listen to Smokey Bear. There’s a reason Smokey wants us to be so concerned about just a little spark: it can turn into an out-of-control blaze. Only YOU can prevent wildfires; only YOU can prevent gossip or slander or a betrayed confidence. We have to be constantly vigilant, dousing our campfires and holding our tongues. But that’s not all. A “wildfire” implies damage done out there – outside of ourselves. But words do inward damage, too. What we say shapes who we are and how we...
Faith and Works

Faith and Works

James 2:14-26 If you grow up in church – like I did – you develop a kind of second-sense for answering church questions.  When the Sunday School teacher asks about how to treat people, go to the greatest commandment – “treat others as you’d want to be treated.”  When the pastor asks a question during the children’s sermon, the answer is probably, “Jesus.”  But no matter how much time we’ve spent listening to sermons or Sunday School lessons, some questions still stump us.  Questions like: “Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). Even with all my church experience, this one leaves me raising an eyebrow.  The answer seems like it should be “Yes.”  Many of Paul’s letters are spent arguing for the power of faith.  Take Ephesians 2:8-9, for example:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Can faith save you?  “Yes!” …Right? The way James is asking it, I’m not so sure “Yes” is the answer he’s looking for. This deserves a closer look. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). Before he gives us a chance to answer these questions, James tells a short story.  Here in Cherokee County it might go like this:  It’s the dead of winter and a student at Andrews Middle is without a coat.  He comes to class in short sleeves, his bare arms red from the wind.  To...
Trials and Perseverance

Trials and Perseverance

James 1:2-8 If you’ve ever gone through a hard time (and who hasn’t), then you’ve probably heard one or more of the following: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” “Rain on your wedding day is good luck.” “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “When one door closes, another opens.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” We have dozens of sayings like this, all designed to find the positive in a negative situation.  Some of them are silly (Why would a rainy wedding be good luck?).  Some of them are inspiring (Keep running, team – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!).  A few are built on shaky theology (If everything happens for a reason, does that imply that God is responsible for evil?  And if God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, well, it seems I can handle a whole lot more than I want to). These expressions have their place.  It helps to have a good pep talk when we’re down.  But when a really serious challenge comes up, these same phrases can turn to bitter medicine.  When my “cloud” is a category five hurricane, it doesn’t help to know that there’s a silver lining out there somewhere.  When I’m buried under a crushing pile of “lemons,” don’t talk to me about lemonade. For that reason, I have mixed feelings about these expressions.  They’re nice and all… but when things are really bad, I need something more. I need James 1:2-3. James 1:2-3 has long been one of my...
Back to School Clothes

Back to School Clothes

Ephesians 6:10-20 Today the kids go back to school – my two, and all the kids here in Cherokee County, NC.  All over social media you can find pictures of fresh-faced students in their back-to-school clothes. Ah – that first outfit.  On it will rest the hopes and fears of all the [school] year.  Or was that just me? The back-to-school outfit was so important to me, I can clearly remember a couple of them.  Like the stonewashed pair of Guess jeans that were so tight, they had zippers at the ankles to get them over my feet and I had to lay down on my bed to button them up.  At the other end of the spectrum were the wide-legged JNCO pants that I bought with my own money – because my mother would never have financed that foolish endeavor. My style changed from year to year… but my hope to put my best foot forward remained the same.  My secret dream was that the campus came might come to a state of hushed awe when I stepped out of the car.  “Wow, Mary really changed over the summer!”  “She looks great!”  “Maybe I should ask her to go to homecoming!”  “Maybe we should make her the homecoming queen!” Of course, that fantasy is only for the world of teeny-bop coming-of-age movies.  But it does make a difference to have the right outfit, does it not?  A little extra confidence and a good first impression can go a long way. That’s what draws me to Ephesians 6:  this idea of putting on the right things.  Not clothes –...
How (and how not) to be angry

How (and how not) to be angry

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). How can we be angry, but not sin? That’s the goal that Ephesians puts in front of us.  Not to not be angry – but when we get angry, to do it without sinning. All week long I’ve been trying to figure out just how to do that.  Anger is a powerful but dangerous emotion, one that can easily get away from us.  If we’re not careful… While I’m sure you’ve never grown muscles and turned green in your anger… I bet you’ve had your anger turn you into something you’re not (or don’t want to be).  How can we be angry, without those kinds of things happening? For starters – I think we want to be angry like God is angry.  Six times Scripture describes God as “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6, Num 14:18, Neh 9:17, and Pss 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).  The Psalms match this description with “merciful and gracious” in each instance.  I’ll back that up with personal testimony, as this has been my own experience of God:  full of mercy and grace, slow to be angry. But let’s not confuse that with never getting angry. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you are well aware of God’s anger.  God gets angry so often we might question the “slowness” of it:  when people do what is evil (Deut 4:25), break his covenant (Josh 23:16), or worship other gods (Deut 6:15, Judg 2:12).  God gets angry when the Israelites touch things they’re not...
I Love to Tell the Story

I Love to Tell the Story

John 9:1-11 My family went to church almost every Sunday growing up.  Hundreds of times we emerged from the captivity of the air-conditioned worship service into the warm freedom of Sunday afternoon.  The memories from those drives home are strong; when I think of them, I can almost feel the baked heat of the parked car… I can almost smell the Church’s fried chicken we’d pick up for lunch… and I can almost hear the last hymn that got stuck in our heads. And the hymn I most remember us singing was this one: I love to tell the story, Twill be my theme in glory, To tell the old, old story Of Jesus and his love. It’s the first hymn I remember liking – the first one I remember getting excited about when it came up in rotation.  I liked it because of its tune (mercifully low for us altos).  I think I liked it, also, because even a child could understand it.  Where other hymns include terms like “Ebenezer,” this one was blissfully simple: I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do. So… wonderfully… simple.  I love to tell the story! And yet – not simple at all. Have you ever tried to tell someone the story of God’s love?  If someone asks, “Why do you go to church?” or “Why are you a Christian?” is it simple to tell the story?  Or do you...