What do you do when the whole world turns against you? How do you choose between your body and your soul?
This Sunday, we wrap up our “Holy Uncomfortable” worship series with the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three extraordinary young men who kept their faith in God while living in a foreign land. Yet, in spite of their steadfast faithfulness (actually, because of their steadfast faithfulness), they found themselves condemned to death by fire. Given a final chance by the King to abandon their faith and save their lives, they make the most beautiful and pure declaration of faith in scripture. I imagine Jesus himself remembered their story as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
If you’ve been taught that believing in God means that nothing bad will ever happen to you, this story will break your heart—and then it will show you an even more excellent way.
This week in our worship series “Holy Uncomfortable,” we turn to the book of Judges. And it doesn’t have such a great reputation. People who complain that the “Old Testament” God is violent and angry usually turn to Judges as exhibit A. At first glance, it’s stories of war, rebellion, vengeance, power struggle, and violence seem the antithesis of our series theme—both unholy and completely familiar.
But let’s dig a little deeper, because in the book of Judges we see God’s design for holy community—a structure of power and leadership that is completely unfamiliar to us. No standing military? Leaders who rule only as long as God calls them to? Women and men leading the people collaboratively? We tell ourselves such a thing isn’t possible, but our spiritual ancestors were living this way millennia ago.
And, it’s true—again and again—we see the chosen people turn away from the covenant and conform to the values of the world, always with disastrous consequences. And, also—again and again—we see God turning and rescuing the people. We see God’s faithfulness to unfaithful people. We see that no matter how often we give up on God, God never gives up on us.
We’re wrestling with the unsettling truth that proximity to God is both holy and uncomfortable. Our scripture lesson is one of many perfect examples—the story of the apostle Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Fair warning: this means we are going to have to have our own uncomfortable conversation about the e-word—that once wide-spread practice that most of us now find embarrassing and borderline barbaric.
I’m talking, of course, about evangelism.
Because, this is a story about a time God called a believer to leave the safety and familiarity of his faith community and embark upon an encounter with a stranger considered foreign, inferior, and ritually unclean. What began with an open-ended prompt by the Holy Spirit ended with an unsanctioned baptism and a clear demonstration of God’s radical desire to reconcile A-L-L people through the salvation of Jesus Christ. That’s a message the church has been burying and domesticating ever since.
We come to church and we come to God because we want to feel good. We seek help, hope, forgiveness, peace, love, and joy. The good news is that Jesus has all of these things for us in limitless abundance. But, that is not all he has for us. Our savior has even more good gifts for us—growth, new life, holiness, wisdom, repentance, and sanctification.
But some of those good gifts don’t feel good.
Every gift that Jesus has for us is good and is for our good, but not all of them feel good to our sin-shaped souls. When we demand God give us nothing but comfort and pleasure—when we automatically reject anything that disturbs or troubles us—we turn away from abundant life.
This Sunday, we start our “Holy Uncomfortable” worship series. For the next month, we’ll explore the not-at-all-hidden truth in scripture that not every encounter with God is pleasant and comfortable. But, here’s the thing—every single one of them isgood. The stories of the saints teach us that being uncomfortable is not always a sign that something is wrong, and that we must learn to recognize and embrace this holy discomfort because it signals the beginning of healing and new life.
We are sheep. That’s not an insult, it’s really good news.
The morning radio show I listen to has a recurring segment these days where they ask different people to answer the question, ‘what is keeping you up at night?’ There is a heartbreaking divide among the answers, the only common ground is–everybody has one.
Everybody has something that is keeping them up at night.
Psalm 23 can also be common holy ground in these days. Whatever is breaking your heart, whatever is keeping you awake at night, there is consolation here. The psalm reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd. That means we are sheep, not saviors.
Many of the things keeping us up at night are more than we can handle. But we aren’t left on our own to handle them. We have a shepherd, a good one. That doesn’t mean there are not really dangerous days. It does mean we aren’t facing them alone.
If you answered the question at all, you probably said, “No one.” What else do you say in response to a question from a pastor? We’re not supposed to hate anyone, right? So, therefore, we don’t hate anyone, right?
Psalm 137 is a hauntingly beautiful psalm of lament. The writer has survived horrific trauma. The nation of Babylon has invaded Israel, conquered them in battle, destroyed the holy city, brutally murdered half the civilians, and carried the rest away into slavery. The first verses poignantly express the numbing grief, despair, and excruciating pain of the victims. But, in the last verse, the psalm—which is a prayer—makes a disturbing turn as it begins to talk about the Babylonian invaders:
Happy are they who dash your infants against the rocks.
Pain turns to hate. There is no human who isn’t susceptible to the cancer of hate. Our natural instinct is to hide our hate from God. We know we shouldn’t hate, so we pretend we don’t. But faith isn’t a performance—we can and should bring to God all of ourselves. The beauty, the pain, the brutality. We bring this all to God because where else can we find hope and healing?
I hope you’ll listen as we seek the Lord’s wisdom and grace to flood every corner of our weary hearts.
When I was a kid, I had more trouble falling asleep before the first night of school than I did on Christmas Eve. Even though it’s been many years since I walked into a new classroom, I still love this time of year. This change of season gives all of us a chance for a fresh start.
But nothing is usual this year. It seems like we’ve been living the same day over and over again for months, and when we think about how much longer this pandemic might last, it’s hard not to despair. Instead of hopeful and excited, these days I’m feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and powerless. We’ve never been more eager for a fresh start and we’re just not getting it. So, where is God in all of this? How do we find the heart to worship and praise God when life feels so hard and hopeless? Are we, Christians, even supposed to feel this way?
Well, I don’t know about “supposed to,” but I do know we aren’t the first people to feel this way. The book of Psalms provides a record that however we are feeling in these days, those who came before felt this way too. As long as people have been in relationship with God, we’ve been pouring the whole truth of our hearts out to him in prayer. Not all of those prayers are pretty or comforting, but they are all holy.
And, sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by our own powerlessness, we can find hope and strength in proclaiming the power of God. We are small. Our God is not.
I hope you’ll listen in. People have turned to God in seasons just as hard as this one. God was faithful then. God is faithful now and, forevermore, will be.
This Sunday, we open our hearts and hands to welcome Rev. Ray McKinnon, a dear brother in Christ who will bring a word on our worship series, Being Human.
A graduate of John Wesley University, Ray resides in Charlotte, NC with his wife, four boys, cat, dog, and pet gecko. He is a member of the Charlotte Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and a member of the Leading on Opportunity Council, among other leadership roles, such as Co-Founder of New South Progressives, President of the South Tryon Community Development Corporation, Board member of LeadNC, and Co-Vice chair of the Justice and Reconciliation Team of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, to name a few.
We are grateful for Ray whose wise words will speak into Psalm 69:1-16 and the human condition. Fundamental to Ray’s calling is a conviction that faith—true and abiding faith—impacts others and leaves them more whole, more loved, more inspired, and never hurt.
Let us be humbled by the reminder of our humanity, all the while astonished and in awe of the amazing grace that calls us into living out our true and abiding faith with Jesus.
This Sunday, we begin our new worship series, Being Human: A Series on the Book of Psalms. These days, being human is a pretty overwhelming gift. Fear, joy, loneliness, exhaustion, love, hope, suffering, trust, anger—in this strange season of exile from our “normal” lives, everything it is to be human is intensified. Fortunately, there is a witness in scripture that speaks to our humanity. The book of Psalms is a collection of prayers offered to God by people of faith in all of life’s circumstances. When we read the Psalms, we see that it is good and holy to come to God in prayer with the whole truth of our lives—the holy and the unholy, the sacred and the profane. We see that we are not the only ones who struggle with our humanity. We see that our humanness won’t separate us from the God who loves us.
Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of a new and abundant way of being human. That’s the case in Psalm 133, our scripture for this Sunday. It’s a testimony to the innate gift of being human together—with God and with one another. The psalm praises God for the gift of unity with one another and testifies that it is the place of blessing and salvation. And in response, we’re trying something unusual in worship. I’ll be preaching a sermon on spiritual friendship with my great friend and fellow pastor, Eulando Henton. I hope you’ll listen in.
We have nothing to fear in our failures or in our humanity because we serve a God who knows us and delights in us, who meets us in our highs and in our lows and reminds us that we are not gods, but we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Yeah—this week we’re going to talk about that one, and, spoiler alert: the Bible doesn’t say that.
The Bible doesn’t say that because our God doesn’t operate that way. God clothes the lily of the valley and feeds the sparrow. God feeds disobedient, run-away prophets. God makes the rain fall and the sun set on the just and the unjust. Our Bible is full of stories of God helping those who need it, those who don’t deserve it, and those most of us would consider beyond help. So why are we so easily convinced otherwise?
It’s because we live in a culture where people who can’t help themselves are out of luck. But we are Kingdom people and we are called to another way. God most definitely helps those who don’t help themselves. And, if you are his follower, you are called to go and do likewise.