Pastor Andrew's Corner appears as a guest column that publishes twice a month in The Tidewater News.
The Long Road of Rescue, Relief, and Recovery
A few years ago, my wife and I took a weekend to go through training to be a part of the United Methodist Church’s “Emergency Response Teams.” These teams are part of the relief which is the second tier in responding to a disaster. We learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of relief work, but what was most profoundly challenging to me was understanding how long and slow the work of recovery is after a major disaster. I want to share a little bit about the process so you can understand the importance of your long-term commitment to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
The first stage in responding to a disaster is search and rescue. This work is going on now in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The aim of rescue work is to remove people from immediate danger and get them to safety. The rescue phase of disaster response is what makes the headlines. It gives us the iconic images we have seen over the last week of neighbors carrying one another to safety, john boats helping the elderly climb from flooded houses, and emergency personnel carrying children through the floodwaters. When we are in rescue mode, the entire country is riveted to the story and asking questions of “how can we help.” The irony is most of us cannot do much to help during the rescue phase, but we can prepare for the next stage.
The second phase in disaster response is commonly called “relief.” Relief work is about providing for the immediate needs of victims of the disaster. Relief involves food, water, temporary shelter, medical treatment, and meeting the other needs of those who have been displaced or injured in the disaster. Many of the victims have lost everything, and during this phase, they rely on those of us who are able to stand with them to provide for their needs. The rule-of-thumb is relief work covers ten times the length of time as the rescue work, so if it takes 10 days to complete the rescue work in Houston, we, the neighbors of those who are hurting, need to be prepared to provide 100 days’ worth of relief supplies. Relief work still makes the papers and news shows, but it is usually no longer front-page news or the lead story. We no longer have dramatic rescue pictures. Instead we have cots, clinics, cold-cut sandwiches, and the challenge of making sure everyone has somewhere to poop (which is one of the biggest challenges when you have a lot of people in a shelter!). During the relief effort, the rest of the country starts to lose interest in the stories and victims because poop isn’t “front page news,” but disaster victims can’t afford for us to quit caring. We are a fickle people, quick to jump to the next sensational story, but the victims need our attention and care more when the headlines fade.
Relief is not the end of the story, though by the time the relief phase is ending the nation’s attention is usually exhausted. Relief needs to move into recovery. Recovery work is all about helping victims to find a new normal where jobs, school, homes, and relationships can be restored. Recovery is about rebuilding homes, reopening workplaces, refurbishing schools, and reestablishing lives which have been scattered and shattered. The rule-of-thumb for recovery work in the US is to multiply the relief period by 10 again, so 10 days of rescue lead to 100 days of relief and 1000 days—almost three years—of work to recover a new normal for life. Sometimes insurance helps with recovery work (though standard homeowner’s insurance does NOT cover flood damage), but there are many, many people who have neither the insurance nor the personal financial reserves to rebuild after the kind of damage leveled by Harvey. If we are still paying attention at this point, we will see the huge need. The question is, will we still be paying attention?
I travelled with a work team to New Orleans several years after Hurricane Katrina and was stunned to see entire neighborhoods which had simply been deserted. No one was interested in helping those places recover. The home we worked on that week had an empty lot on one side where a house had been demolished and two neighboring homes which had been gutted but no one had even begun rebuilding. The nation had stopped paying attention. Even today, parts of New Orleans still have not recovered.
Our nation does rescue well. We rally together and support the victims. We are quick to line up to give blood (whether it is needed or not) and profess our support for communities that have been ravished. Unfortunately, our attention span is poor and when our neighbors most need our help, we have often turned our focus to the latest squirrel to catch our eye. Let’s see if we can stay focus on Houston for the next few years and truly help those who are in need!
If you are looking for a way to help, you are invited to join the Courtland UMC community in putting together cleaning buckets which will be delivered to victims of the storm through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) as the victims try to move from relief to recovery. (instructions are online here: tiny.cc/cleaningbuckets). You can also give online to UMCOR where 100% of your gift goes to relief and recovery efforts (the United Methodist Church covers the overhead making this one of the most effective ways to give money). Give online or find out more about UMCOR’s work at umcor.org.
The Other Sermon: Thankfulness Matters.
I love the Bible. Even though I have been reading scripture (almost) every day for years, I come back to passages I have read and studied before and hear something new from God. In the church, we talk about the words of scripture being “living and active,” (Hebrews 4:12) and anyone who has committed themselves to prayerfully studying scripture can bear witness to the ways that God is able to speak to us in new and life changing ways through stories and scriptures we have read many times.
I want to give you a glimpse into what this looks like for me today, in hopes that you will both learn something from this column but also be inspired to prayerfully sit down with the Bible yourself. It is good to be able to read someone else’s words explaining the power of scripture, but it is even better to fall in love with God’s book for yourself and soak in the powerful words it offers.
At Courtland United Methodist Church, I have been preaching a series of sermons about “Navigating Life” based on Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem. Early in Luke’s Gospel (there are four Gospels which record Jesus’ life), we read that “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). There is much more to Jesus’ life and ministry before he ascends to heaven, but the entire journey is heading towards Jerusalem and his death on the cross because he knew that was God’s call on his life. We have been doing our best to learn from Jesus by looking at each of the stories in scripture which talk about his journey to Jerusalem. This week has brought us to Luke 17:11-19.
11 As Jesus continued on toward Jerusalem, he reached the border between Galilee and Samaria. 12 As he entered a village there, ten men with leprosy stood at a distance, 13 crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14 He looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy.
15 One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, “Praise God!” 16 He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done. This man was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And Jesus said to the man, “Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
As I prepare for this Sunday’s worship, I have been reading, praying, and studying the words of Luke and I have heard God say two distinct and powerful messages to me. In nine short verses, God has packaged two powerful ideas about what it means to follow Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem. Honestly, I have little doubt that there are many more than two lessons in this passage, but these two are what God has spoken to me!
After I saw these two distinct yet important words from God, I was in the tough place of determining which message I think God wants me to share with the church. As a preacher, I know trying to convey more than one key idea in a sermon usually means people will leave the time of worship remembering nothing (because the message was not focused enough), so I had to focus in on one of the two messages to preach on Sunday. In the space I have left here, I want to offer you a few thoughts on the “other” sermon—the one I am not going to be preaching (you are welcome to join us Sunday at 11:00 am at Courtland UMC if you are curious about the sermon I am preaching!).
In our story, Jesus encounters ten men. They were all lepers, meaning they had a skin disease which had led to them being cast out of society to face their illness outside of the community. In Jesus’ day, people were concerned these skin diseases were contagious, so they thought exile was the best option. As a result, these men were not just sick, but every portion of their lives had been shattered. They could not live with their families (or even visit them). They could not work. They could not worship in the temple. They had been cast out in every imaginable way. So, when they saw the miracle-worker Jesus outside of town (they were not allowed in town!), they called out to him seeking healing.
Healing is exactly what they received from Jesus, though they did not know it until they had travelled further down the road. Jesus gave them instructions to be examined by the priest (priests had the role of determining if someone had leprosy). It was on the way the power of God was poured out on these ten men and the disease which had caused them so much pain was removed.
I can only imagine the excitement as they realized the future they had thought was dead was alive again. They could be reunited with their families! They could return to their work! They could gather with the community again! I am sure all those possibilities and more were running through their heads as their joy bubbled over. They had to get moving! There was no time to waste to make up for the lost time in their lives! To the priest and then, finally, home!
You can see how easily they might get caught up in the excitement. One of the ten, however, realized the first thing he needed to do was not hurry to get “back to life,” but instead stop, return to Jesus, and thank God for this incredible miracle. Jesus agreed with him. He was the one who chose rightly, and he was blessed because of it.
We all have an abundance of gifts from God. Despite the abundance around us, we are often like the nine who could wait to get “back to life.” There is so much to do, so many things to catch up on, so many tasks to complete that we don’t even consider taking the time to stop, come to Jesus, and thank God for all God has given us.
However, we need to stop. We need to recognize God is the author of our blessings and the giver of every good gift. When we stop, we are able to get the perspective we need to live life well. Thanksgiving changes our attitude from focusing on what we want to celebrating what we have received. It truly has the power to give us new eyes to see the world differently. We need to stop and give thanks if we are going to live well! I want to invite you now simply to stop and reflect on all the blessings in your lives. They are all gifts from God. Thank God for them and live life looking for how God is working in you!
Reflections from the Man in the Mask
This week I spent a lot of time wearing a mask. We held our “Hero Central” Vacation Bible School at Courtland United Methodist Church and I spent the week in character as “The Flash” helping kids learn about how we can all be heroes for God by having heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and God’s power. Overall, it was a wonderful week. We had a wonderful time singing, dancing, telling stories from the Bible, talking about what those stories teach us about how to follow God, and reminding one another that we don’t need super powers to be heroes. The mask, however, was probably my least favorite part!
Most comic book superheroes wear a mask of some sort to hide their “secret identity” from the world around them. I found that a mask can do that—many of the kids (especially the younger ones) never made the connection that “Pastor Andrew” who greeted them before dinner was the same as “The Flash” who lead our assemblies and Bible story times. So, if you are looking for a way to keep people from seeing and knowing your (secret) identity, a mask might be a good way to go.
I also found that being the man in the mask is a lonely place to be. I was constantly worrying about being “in character” and making sure that my mask was covering me to keep my true self hidden. I had to watch what I said and what I did to make sure everyone saw “The Flash” and not “Andrew.” My mask kept me from seeing clearly (did you know those things can get caught on your eyelashes?!?) and forced me to leave my glasses behind so everything was a bit fuzzy. So, regardless of whether I was jumping around to songs like “Leap of Faith,” telling stories about the one (Jesus) who has shaped my life and soul more than any other person, or just talking with the kids and adults who spent the week at Courtland UMC, the mask was a constant reminder that I was trying to be someone else.
The final night of Vacation Bible School was a cookout and celebration of the week. I had planned to appear as The Flash one last time, but when the time came, I left the mask off. As much fun as I had playing someone else, by the end of the week I was exhausted by the ruse and just wanted to look into the faces of the kids I had been high-fiving, hugging, and laughing with and let them know that the man in the mask cares about them, wants to call them by name, and wants to be real with them. So, in the end, it was Andrew, not “The Flash” who led our final gathering together. In place of my mask I had my two-year old in my arms (he had enough of watching daddy up front and insisted on being held!). As I look back, that was the most authentic thing which could have happened. I am not “The Flash.” I am Andrew: a father, husband, follower of Jesus, and pastor.
The masks we wear in everyday life are not nearly as obvious as the red and yellow contraption I put on each evening last week. Instead of hiding our identity with strips of cloth, we use fake smiles to hide the hurt in our hearts, stock answers instead of truly sharing our hearts, and clichés in place of honest discussion. These are the masks we wear every day and they create a barrier between us and the people around us which is much deeper and ultimately much more harmful to our ability to truly develop friendships than any physical mask could ever be. Yet, many of us have been so trained to hide ourselves that we hardly even know what to do when it becomes clear that we are wearing a mask!
People who know me well know that I prize authenticity over almost anything else. In a time when the church is known as a place where people wear masks to hide their true struggles, hurts, and brokenness, I do everything I can to be honest myself and encourage authenticity in those around me. We have been working hard to create a culture of authenticity at Courtland UMC. We have made some good steps, but I am constantly amazed how hard it is for most of us to take off our masks and let those around us see who we really are. I have no regrets about spending a week behind a mask as “The Flash,” but I am thrilled to be able to set the mask aside and simply be “Andrew.” I hope you can set your mask aside and be your honest, authentic self. This week, find someone you trust and take down a little bit of the façade that is keeping them from seeing what is truly going on in your life. We all need to be known, so give someone a chance to truly know you!
Be a Hero. You don’t need to be “Super”
Our country is obsessed with Superheroes. We love their stories and we tell them over and over again. I have lost count of how many movies have been made about Wolverine, Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the others, but it is no overstatement to say that Hollywood is already producing the next re-telling of a hero’s story before the first movie is even out of the theaters.
It used to be that superheroes were just for kids, but now many of the movies and TV shows which are created are not just for kids or, in some cases, not for kids at all. The reason is that Hollywood has recognized it is not just kids who love stories about superheroes. We all do. We love to watch and dream about what it would be like to be a person with special powers which allow us to conquer evil, stop the bad guys, and change the world for good. What I think is remarkable is that as much time as we spend dreaming about “what if,” very few people actually take the time to work towards those same goals of being a positive impact on our society and world with the powers we have.
The reality of our world is that each and every person has enough power (even if it isn’t “superpower”) to be a hero in meaningful ways. There are people in our communities who need someone to show up in their lives. There are kids who need tutoring, communities that need cleaning, environments that need protecting, people who need food, and on and on. There are innumerable people around us who need a hero today who looks just like you, and yet we find ourselves dreaming, “if I had superpowers then I would really help people.” Honesty, I don’t think even superpowers would change us if we aren’t willing to use our normal powers to make a difference! We can really help people today if we care enough to do it—most of us honesty just do not care enough to figure out how to be a hero for the girls sold as sex slaves (yes, that happens in Virginia!) or the sick who have no one to care for them. We have all the power we need—we just need to care more to make being a hero a priority!
This week at Courtland United Methodist Church, we are hosting a Vacation Bible School around the idea that we are all God’s heroes (kids age 3-5th grade are welcome, if you are not signed up, just show up Sunday the 25th at 5:30 and we will register you!). The theme made me a little uncomfortable at first because of the way that the “Superheroes” we know and love rely on their special abilities to make a difference. But, as I have prepared for our Bible lessons and assemblies, I have come to appreciate why this theme is so valuable—we need to recognize that we don’t need to have super-human abilities in order to be heroes. We just need to care enough to use the abilities God has given us.
I claimed the first part of the “Hero Code” as my sermon title for our 11:00 am family worship this morning: “God’s Heroes Have Heart.” At the end of the day, it does not matter how many superpowers someone has, if they do not have a heart of love, they will not be a hero. The opposite is also true—no matter how few we think our powers are, we have enough power to be heroes as we follow the path laid out for us by a loving God.
One of the reasons that I love the stories recorded in the Bible is that most of the time the stories are about normal people who are not “super” in any way. They are people just like you and me who mess up and make mistakes and yet, once these people allow God to take hold of their hearts, they become the heroes who literally changed the world. They did all of it without x-ray vision or web shooters!
The next time you watch a superhero movie or read a comic, ask yourself about the heart that drives a hero. While it is true (as Spiderman often quotes from his uncle Ben) that “with great power comes great responsibility,” it is also true that we all have power which is great enough for us to be a hero. The power God has given you gives you a great responsibility. How will you use it?
“For the Kids”
We live in a world today where kids are struggling to truly thrive more and more. A brief review on the state of American kids reveals that children today have higher rates of mental illness (with a stunning sixfold increase in depression since the Great Depression), have a lower life expectancy than their parents, and are more likely to be obese or overweight than children a generation ago. I could continue on to look at statistics about the number of young people who are forced to work multiple jobs to cover expenses and many other areas which are impacting young adults as well. The data shows that, by and large, children today are more likely to struggle to thrive than children have been for many years.
Now, contrast this to the experience many of us have with parents who seem to shape their lives and priorities around their children. It would seem like the number of families who are doing much of life “for the kids” would push the numbers in the other direction. Certainly, those families who are truly prioritizing the needs of their children do see higher rates of mental health and other indicators of life lived well in their kids, but there is another reality at play as well: parents sometimes confuse what our children truly need to thrive with those things we want for them.
A good example of this division is what has happened in youth sports over the last few decades. Youth sports have increasingly pushed kids into specializing in one sport early on, joining travel teams in elementary school that require high levels of commitment, high expectations for performance, and large requirements of time, and discouraging youth from playing other sports. Studies have found that this trend is, by and large, not a healthy one for the children involved with skyrocketing levels of injuries due to overuse, high levels of performance-based stress, and, most surprisingly to me, a 70% drop out rate of kids who are unwilling to continue in these sports. Overall, participation in team sports (and the many benefits of team sports) in this country has actually been driven down! As Outdoors magazine summarizes “It goes without saying that sports are good for kids. Participation in youth sports improves self-esteem, teaches sportsmanship, encourages safe risk-taking, and builds healthy bodies and brains,” but in many cases sports specialization at a young age pushes kids away from sports rather than towards them.
Despite the negatives associated with sports specialization at a young age, the business of travel teams for young kids continues to boom. The reason is often not because it is “for the kids,” but instead participation is driven by parents who want to see their kids excel, be “special,” and strive for that elusive college scholarship. Kids surveyed care much less about being “elite” and winning than their parents—they just want to play and have fun with their friends.
It turns out that what kids want from team sports is what they need for their mental health as well! Mentalhealthamerica.net lists these “basics for a child’s good mental health: unconditional love from family, self-confidence and high self-esteem, the opportunity to play with other children, encouraging teachers and supportive caretakers, safe and secure surroundings, and appropriate guidance and discipline.” Insofar as a sports team is offering those things, the team will probably be a good place for nurturing a child. On the other hand, if a team places high amounts of stress on kids, tears down their self-esteem, and critiques rather than encourages them, those teams are going to hurt them. Another rule of thumb that I ran across as I was researching for this article was this: “The general rule is that they should never be involved in more hours (per week) of organized sports than their age" to help keep kids from injury and over-involvement.
Travel sports are one avenue that involved parents can overwhelm their kids and, in the long run, hurt them, but it is certainly not the only one. Parent expectations for high levels of performance in any area can be equally damaging—especially if the child has come to believe that their parents’ affirmation and encouragement hinges on their ability to perform.
So, if you are a parent, take a long hard look at the expectations you are placing on your children. Are they appropriate? Are they truly going to help your child to thrive?
As a pastor, I am a bit biased, but when I read through the list of things needed for a good mental health, I see a lot of areas where a good church community can play an important role in each child’s life. If you are a parent, I hope you can find the kid of community that your child needs in order to thrive. If you are looking for that kind of community, we would love to have you come join us at Courtland United Methodist Church!
 http://archive.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2010/01/11/study_youth_now_have_more_mental_health_issues/ see also https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-changing-culture/201510/are-mental-health-issues-the-rise
 See http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4556235/ns/health-childrens_health/t/pushing-too-hard-too-young/#.WTFud2jyvb1 , https://qz.com/576537/team-sports-are-dying-in-the-very-country-that-is-obsessed-with-them/ , and http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/21/health/kids-youth-sports-parents/index.html
Living with Broken Dreams
This week at Courtland United Methodist Church, we are talking about Broken Dreams and the power of God to Un-Break those dreams which have been lost. As I have been thinking, praying, and reading about the ways that our dreams can guide and direct our lives, God has been speaking to me about the two sides of the coin. We all have times when we are pursuing dreams, but, on the flip side, we also have times when those dreams are no longer in reach and we are simply responding to life. Life coaches, organizational gurus, and other “experts” love to point out the importance of having dreams and a vision in order to make progress towards your goals However, those experts often miss the reality of broken dreams in our lives. There are times when we just break, and the sense of purpose and picture of the future we had seen simply evaporates. It is easy to live with “purpose” when we have a dream, but what do we do when the dream is shattered?
Moses is a powerful example of the reality of broken dreams. As a young man, Moses was an adopted prince in Egypt and he was determined to help his biological family—the people of Israel—who were slaves. In his zeal, Moses attacked a slave master who was beating an Israelite and killed the man. He hid the body, but soon realized that his secret had been discovered and he was forced to flee (see Exodus 2). Moses’ dream (and his entire world!) were broken, seemingly beyond repair. He left the life of a prince and fled Egypt as an exile. He eventually ended up sitting at a well in a place called Midian. It is at that well that Moses gives us an important clue for how to live as people with broken dreams.
We don’t know how long he was sitting by that well, but as he sat there, he witnessed a group of women trying to bring their sheep to get water. Those women were chased away by other shepherds, and Moses responded. Moses defended them, helped them water their sheep, and then sat back down by the well to figure out life. Moses no longer had a vision or a dream that was guiding his life. He was not pursuing anything (other than staying alive!), but as the situations of life crossed his path, he responded to those situations in a faithful and godly manner. His response, it turned out, was a major turning point in his life.
Shortly after these women left with their sheep, they returned. Moses was still sitting there. In my mind, he was stressfully running his fingers through his hair while staring intently at an ant crossing the sand between his feet. He had nowhere to go and no dream to pursue so he was just sitting. The women invited him to come eat dinner with them, which led to Moses settling with them and becoming a shepherd. Moses eventually married one of the women he rescued, Zipporah. Moses and Zipporah had a family together, and the man with no dream and no vision found family and purpose.
Moses had lost everything. He had no dreams left to pursue (and no amount of “life coaching” or encouragement could change that!). He was in a place in life where responding to the world around him was the only option left to him—and he responded well, which led him to finding a new family and new job and, eventually, a new dream when his sheep led him to the burning bush in Exodus 3.
The reason Moses’ story is so valuable for us today is that we easily think about the heroes of faith as people driven by Godly dreams during every point of their lives, but that simply is not the case. Once God gives Moses a new dream and marching orders in Exodus 3, Moses is living from that vision, but Moses is simply responding to life around him for forty years. He tried to respond in the best way possible, and that made all the difference.
Some of you are people whose dreams have broken. You know you should be pursuing something with your life and energy, but you can’t for the life of you think what. You are in good company with Moses and many others! Tell yourself that it is ok to simply respond to what life is throwing at you. Trust that God will bring a burning bush across your path when it is time for you to see a new dream to pursue, but for now simply try to live well in each situation you are in. Who knows, you might find a new family and new hope as you respond with love, grace, and mercy to those things which come across your path! Dreams and goals are wonderful, but they are also fragile. So, when your dreams break, don’t pretend that you instantly have another dream to replace it. Be broken, respond to life as best you can, and trust that God will renew your dreams in God’s time.
We will be unpacking this story more fully this Sunday at Courtland UMC if you are interested in joining us. Wherever you are this week, whether you are pursuing a dream or simply responding to what life throws at you, may you find hope in Christ and the strength to live well though God’s Spirit!
Why Families Break (and what to do about it!)
This week I’ve been focusing on relationships. Our focus in worship this Sunday at Courtland United Methodist Church is on how God likes to work to Un-Break our relationships, so I have been delving into the Biblical stories of relationships that broke and looking at how God did the work of restoration in some of those broken relationships. I didn’t really intend to focus on one particular type of relationship as I began to explore. I had in mind friendships, marriages, work relationships, siblings, neighbors and more, but the more I looked at the stories in scripture of broken relationships, the more I realized we have one type of relationship that has a habit of breaking: families.
Starting with the first family, in the first book of the Bible (Genesis), we see how easily things get broken in our relationships with our families. If the first sin was eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, the second sin was blaming your spouse for your poor choices (see Genesis 3:12). The brokenness in the first family only grows from there as Cain and Abel develop the first sibling rivalry which leads to the first murder! There is something both disturbing and comforting in recognizing that the brokenness many of us have experienced in our families goes all the way back to the beginning.
The book of Genesis is the most family focused book in the Bible, because much of the story in Genesis is based on a single family. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham (called “Abram” at that point), to pick up his family and follow God—and the rest of the book is all about Abraham and his family. There is a lot of brokenness even in God’s chosen family. Abraham’s grandson Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for his firstborn brother Esau and then flees when Esau tries to kill him. Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph is sold as a slave by his brothers who got tired of Joseph being their father’s favorite with dreams of grandeur. The brokenness in God’s chosen family is clear, even from a quick reading through the book of Genesis. In fact, the level of broken relationships in Genesis is greater than just about anything else we see in the rest of the Bible.
In my experience as a pastor, brokenness in families is not something that is only recorded in Genesis. I have sat down to talk with many people who need someone to listen to the stories of brokenness in their families. Often those stories begin years (if not decades) ago with someone making a choice that broke something. Those initial events are sometimes big deals and sometimes minor slights, but what they all have in common is that no one ever worked to resolve the break. Many times there is money involved in the squabble, and the love of money usually breaks things! Family brokenness has the unusual habit of growing worse over the years. Where friends who have a rift may discover over time that they can’t even remember what the fight was about, the wounds caused by family fights often fester and get worse if they are not tended to. The result is that it is not uncommon to discover family members who have been feuding (or ignoring each other) for many years because neither of them are willing to be the one to say, “I’m sorry” or even “what happened that day?”
I am not a professional counselor, so I’m not going to wade into the ways that we need to be working to heal the rifts in our family except to say this: it takes work. 1 Peter 3 offers some great advice about relationships:
8 Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. 9 Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. 10 For the Scriptures say,
“If you want to enjoy life
and see many happy days,
keep your tongue from speaking evil
and your lips from telling lies.
11 Turn away from evil and do good.
Search for peace, and work to maintain it.
Work at those relationships that matter, because your work will pay off. Swallow your pride and love your brothers and sisters as if they were your brothers and sisters. Offer blessing instead of repaying evil with evil. As you work for peace, you will, more often than not, find it. Set aside the idea that “I shouldn’t have to say that” or “they need to apologize first,” because, at the end of the day, the only person you can control in the relationship is you. If you want to invite God in to un-break your relationships, you have to be the one acting out that invitation in your love towards the people around you!
So go and get to work, you have some un-breaking to do!
Learning and studying to prepare a sermon or a new worship series is a joy for me. I love sitting down with scripture, a stack of other books about life and faith from many fields of study, and a blank page of my journal to wrestle with truth, faith, and how we can be shaped by God’s word and God’s Spirit in meaningful ways today. As I read, study, and pray, God usually speaks to me. Sometimes it is about small things in life, other times God helps me to see the big picture dynamics that have the power to control us. This last week was a big picture kind of week.
We are beginning a new worship series at Courtland United Methodist Church titled, “Un-Broken” which looks at how God heals our brokenness to create something more beautiful in us than we could have imagined. As I dived into my study, the first question on my mind was, “What are the areas of life where we experience brokenness?” As I looked for the most common areas of brokenness in life, I began to notice a trend: money was showing up over and over again. Most people live as though money is the thing that can help to solve our brokenness, but the reality is that money is more often the cause of brokenness than the solution!
Among the areas where we feel most broken are relationships, attitudes, dreams, passions, and faith. Often, in all of these areas, brokenness has come because another lover, dream, passion, or object of faith has replaced the one which was precious to us. That competing lover is almost always money. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and the more I have considered the causes of brokenness in our lives, the more convinced I am Paul was right. Not only was he right, but most people in American society today are, at a very deep level, lovers of money. This love has been deeply engrained in us out of the idea that money provides for our needs, money gives us security, power, and pleasure, and money is the ultimate failsafe to ensure that nothing bad can happen to us. The American psyche is obsessed with getting, spending, and saving money. Loving money is the water that we swim in, and just as fish can’t recognize that they are underwater (they have not experienced anything else!), so we too struggle to see how much of a hold money has on most of our lives.
When Paul uses the word “evil” in the verse I quoted above, we often think in spiritual terms and assume Paul’s warning is not practical for life. Most people think that “evil” is something that God will be upset about, but seldom do we stop to wonder why God calls “evil” evil. Evil is evil because the ways it impacts our lives and the lives of the people around us. Jesus said the author of evil is the one who comes to, “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) and that is exactly what evil does in our lives. It steals, it kills, and it destroys. Evil leaves us truly broken because breaking you is the goal of evil. Evil ruins our lives. It breaks us, and while God is in the business of un-breaking us, none of us need extra levels of brokenness—we have enough already. Maybe a better way to read 1 Timothy 6:10 is this: “Thinking money can meet all of your needs and desires while giving you security for the future will RUIN YOUR LIFE.”
The more we love money, the more broken we are, because all the pieces of life that truly matter become casualties to our love of money. The more we hoard and save and cut costs the more our friends don’t think we value them (because we won’t pick up the tab at dinner or help them out when they have a need), our dreams wither on the vine (because they won’t make us money), and our faith shrivels (because we refuse the idea that we could give money to others). The love of money eventually lands us in Ebenezer Scrooge’s lonely, pitiful life (from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) with our only hope being that God will send the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to set us straight.
I am looking forward to the worship series on becoming Un-Broken, because brokenness is a reality in the life of every single human being. I am also hoping and praying that we might all be able to recognize just how entangled we are with our money so that we might be able to avoid some of the life-ruining brokenness that is headed our way if we continue as those who live out of a love of money.
Here is an exercise for you this week. Do something generous that is unexpected. Buy someone’s lunch. Send someone a present you know someone will like even though it is not their birthday. My personal favorite is to send people books I think they will enjoy. As you do this, pay attention to the part of you that protests against giving away money. Learn to recognize the growl because it is the growl of the love of money—and we need to kill it so we can truly become people who are Un-Broken.
We would love to have you join us this week at Courtland United Methodist Church as we begin our series on being Un-Broken. Family Worship is at 11:00. Whether you worship with us, elsewhere, or nowhere at all, my prayer is that you would recognize the growl of the love of money in your heart and learn to live in a way where your finances are a tool you use to value what is truly important rather than letting money control you!
Each day, we use the word “form” for many things. We use “form” to talk about a page we fill out to file our taxes or the “form” (mold) we use to create a Jell-O salad made in the “form” (or image) of a bunch of grapes. We use “form” to discuss the shape of most anything, from a “form-fitting outfit” to asking about the “form” of the new ramp connecting Courtland to Route 58. We also use the word “form” as a verb. We “form” clubs and teams, we also “form” clay into a clay bowl. We use the word “form” to discuss how we shape the word around us, but there is one type of forming we do not pay enough attention to: the form-ation of lives (our own and others).
We do not often talk about how we are forming our own lives or the lives of those around us, but each day, with each action and each decision, we are shaping ourselves and those close to us. Each time we make a decision, we are declaring to ourselves and our children, “this (whatever we have chosen) matters more than that (whatever we have rejected).” A single decision does not form us, but as single decisions lead to repeat decisions which develop to habits, we are forming in ourselves an understanding of what really matters. Those commitments will form us in ways that we may not expect or intend if we are not paying attention!
As a pastor, I am most aware of those decisions as they relate to the life of the church. As with any church, Courtland United Methodist Church has people with varying levels of involvement in the church and varying levels of commitment to following God. Over my decade plus in full-time ministry I have been amazed to watch how powerfully the habits of faith shape whether people (especially children) are growing more committed to following Jesus or moving towards the kind of faith that claims Jesus but does not follow him. I have seen families who were passionate followers of Jesus make a decision to place something (often sports) ahead of their involvement in the community of faith and watched as a single decision turned into a habit. Those habits resulted in a life where decisions based on following Jesus gradually took a smaller and smaller role until their lives looked no different than those of the people around them who did not profess to follow Jesus. Because I see the power, hope, and abundant life that come from truly living for Jesus, my heart breaks when I see those first decisions made because I know how they often end.
Jesus, as is often the case, put this truth simply and powerfully be saying “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Matthew 6:21). Those things that we treasure (put first in life) by devoting our money, time, and priorities will gain our hearts. It is not enough to say we value something. We must live lives that prioritize those things we claim to value or we will soon discover that our hearts have changed to line up with those things are actually treasuring. Ebenezer Scrooge’s love of money in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a perfect example. Scrooge treasured money. He made decisions that led to habits which put money above all else in his life. Eventually, he discovered there was not room in his heart for anything else—even the woman he claimed to love—because his decisions and habits had rooted a love of money deeply in his soul.
James K. A. Smith, in his powerful book “You Are What You Love,” describes what happens. Every activity we take part in had some picture of the ideal “good life” in mind. If the activity is sports, the “good life” looks like your child becoming a professional or the thrill of your team winning it all. If the activity is making money, the “good life” is a life where you have the finances to purchase what you want when you want. If the activity is school, the “good life” is having the education you need to get the job you want (to make the money you want). Every activity we do has some goal even if it is as simple as the call to brush our teeth so we can live the “good life” of no cavities and healthy teeth!
Because each activity comes with a picture of the “good life,” each activity is also shaping us to love that idea of what is good. Chose an activity once and it probably won’t form you (or your family) too deeply. Choose an activity repeatedly and you will eventually discover that your picture of life’s goal—your idea of the “good life”—has been formed by those things you have chosen to treasure. Each time we make a decision, join an activity, or (especially) develop a habit, we are commit ourselves to different versions of “The Good Life.” Eventually that picture of life will claim our hearts whether we intend it or not.
The Good News for us is that Ebenezer Scrooge was redeemed. Despite his years of treasuring money and the version of the “Good Life” he had bought into, Scrooge was given a moment of grace (Christmas Eve in his case) where he could see the pitiful state of his heart and change his life and his habits. In the closing section of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge throws his money into caring for the people around him, creates time for family, and commits to new habits like paying Bob Cratchit a living wage. We too are afforded moments of grace where we can see what version of “The Good Life” we have bought into and reshape or lives. Maybe this is such a moment for you!
I hope you will take some time to look at the habits and decisions in your life. What version of “The Good Life” are you forming in your heart and the hearts of your family? What habits do you need to break or re-form so that “The Good Life” looks like the kind of life you want to spend your days pursuing?
Faith in a Microwave World
Recently, various social media outlets had a rash of posts about microwaving turkeys. The idea was to invite young adults to text their moms and ask “How long should I microwave a 25-pound turkey” and see what kind of responses they received. The responses from various moms were quite funny, but the fact that many moms thought their kids were trying to microwave a 25-pound turkey highlights just how much of a microwave world we live in.
We want everything to happen quickly, whether it be cooking in a microwave, expecting overnight shipping on any order we place, or looking for a major impact from diet, exercise, or any other life change in a few weeks. We are an impatient people who are encouraged to be ever more impatient by a world of marketing that tells us, constantly, that “you deserve it now” and “don’t wait to have the _____ of your dreams.”
The problem with our microwave mentality is things which really matter in life take time. True relationships take time. Living a balanced, healthy life takes time. Growing into the person you want to be takes time. Developing a life changing faith takes time. I have been married for over a decade and my relationship with my wife is much richer and deeper today than it was the day we got married. This is true not simply because the years have passed, but because we have intentionally developed our relationship as we have been together over the years. Relationships thrive in a slow-cooker. So does faith.
A common story in the church is to hear about people who have a powerful encounter with God during a time of worship and dive into a life of faith and service. For a time, faith is all sunshine and roses. However, when faith begins to get hard—such as in times of grief, hardship, or conflict—they throw in the towel and write the entire enterprise off as a mistake. These people expected faith to blossom quickly and always be easy and exciting, but you don’t have to look beyond the Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself, who was tortured and killed to see that faith is not always easy!
The challenge of developing long-term faith is not new to our microwave world. Jesus taught that there would be people who would struggle with slow cooking their faith. After talking about four different kinds of “seeds” that represent how different people respond to the Good News, Jesus said, “20 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 21 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word” (Matthew 13:20-21). This is not a new problem, but the microwave expectations of our world make it especially hard to be people of faith today.
Faith is not a quick-fix to life. There is no equal to the power and strength of faith in helping us live life well, but having an encounter with God or “accepting” Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior are not one step methods for developing a deeply rooted faith that can support you during the challenges and hardships of life. Deep faith does not just happen. There are some people who have a gift of faith that wells up from a deep spring in their soul, but most us have to intentionally work to grow our faith—and we do it because we have seen something that we want in our lives.
Growing faith happens when we make practices of faith a priority. When we set aside time, energy, and resources to grow our faith, our faith grows. The season of Lent (the forty days leading up to Easter) is a time the church has set aside for growing in our practices of faith. Many people continue the practice of “giving something up” for Lent, but rarely do we take time to truly consider how our faith needs to grow before we give up chocolate!
This year, Lent begins on March 1, and I would like to invite you to take the rest of February to ask yourself a few questions. First, ask, “do I want my faith to grow enough that I will put time and energy into growing faith?” If the answer to that question is yes, ask this, “how can I grow my faith in a way that will truly feed my soul?” If you need some help answering this question, I will be walking the community at Courtland United Methodist Church through a new type of faith practice each week in February through Facebook Live and YouTube videos (follow me on Facebook or find the videos on our website at courtlandumcva.org). You can also sign up for updates by emailing the church office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grow your roots this year! Faith is worth the effort, but you will likely never discover life-sustaining faith if you are not willing to put in the time to slow cook your faith!