No Separation

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

It was many years ago when I was introduced to this passage from the Bible. I was asked by a very close friend to become involved in a week-long camp for youth interested in music, arts and drama. I was recruited to lead the drama portion at the Presbyterian camp near where I grew up. The youth came to camp on Sunday and were given the script to a musical which was chosen in advance. We spent the week auditioning, rehearsing, building sets, worshiping, studying the Bible, and enjoying the lake. The camp culminated in a performance of the musical on Friday night. A few years later, we began to also tour with the musical around the area for three additional performances. One of the musicals which we chose to perform was entitled, Big Picture. Toward the climax of the plot, a grieving parent sits on his son’s bed and reads from his son’s open Bible. This is the passage which he reads and his perspective on life and God is forever changed. (You can send me a message if you want to know more about the plot.)

Since assisting with this musical, this passage has become the most important Bible passage to me. I have often turned to these words when dealing with challenges in my life. This passage has spoken to me when I feel unloved or unworthy of being loved. When doubts about my faith have arisen, this passage echoes in my mind. Asked what is the most important thing to know about God and I will answer by quoting these words attributed to the writer of the letter to the Romans.

From my perspective, these are the only words a person truly needs to know when thinking about their relationship with God. My reasoning is that if there is NOTHING which can separate us from the love of God, why worry.

Our world tries to convince us that we can never measure up to what God wants. Churches have even made the mistake of saying that the only way to be in relationship with God is by following a list of rules. People have told others that their actions, words, thoughts, lives are unfit for the love of God. Criteria has been established in some faith communities to determine who qualifies to be a member based on the color of their skin, their financial status, their sexuality, their type of work, their background. To all of those with this approach to Christianity, I say it is time to read your Bible again and specifically this passage.

The writer makes it very clear here that no power upon the earth, no spiritual being, no aspects of our lives are capable of removing us from the love of God. We are not even capable of doing this for ourselves. God loves us completely as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ.

Believe this good news and live accordingly!

Shining

I am sure that every generation feels like they are living in dark times. We even named a whole era in human history as the Dark Ages. Right now we can feel like there is a lot of dark around us with all the changes in our lives which have accompanied the Corona-19 virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise. In addition, we have been living in a very volatile political environment for years as human decency has left most civic discussions and legislative debate. Truly feels like a dark time in so many ways.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have wondered how to respond to the surrounding events during this dark time. I have followed all the practical advice of the medical community regarding the virus. I have listened to the conversations in the political spectrum and attempted to avoid engaging in hostile debates. But there seems to be something more which I can, must, do. Then I am reminded of a song which I sang in Sunday School in my small church while growing up, This Little Light of Mine. The song is a reminder of Jesus’ words, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NIV) Jesus tells us that we are to be lights in the world. The question this begs is how do we go about being lights?

Clearly for me, being an example is the way I can be a light in the world. I can wear a mask when I am in an indoor public setting or one where social distancing is a challenge. I can listen to others who have a point of view which is different from my own and not judge that viewpoint. Taking the time to educate myself on the experiences of other individuals will be an example.

Another important way for me to be a light in the world is by sharing compassion and hope with others. Jesus showed compassion even to those who were engaged in his crucifixion. Compassion is not attempting to better others. Using words that build up and not tear down another’s self is compassion. Being present with others even when you do not understand what they are experiencing is compassion.

Sharing hope is reminding each other that we do not walk alone but together and with the Lord. Identifying the positive of each day shares hope. Putting the events of our lives in perspective with the history of humanity and God’s children can produce hope. Sharing the promises of God as identified in Scripture leads to hope.

We are called to share our light with a world experiencing darkness. How are you choosing to shine your light? Let your light shine and do not let anything blow it out!

Telling Your Story

Throughout time, I have had the pleasure of reading some amazing books regarding faith and faith journeys. A few of my favorites are The Chronicles of Narnia, The Shack, and Too Busy Not to Pray. Each of these books have given me wonderful insights and amazing motivation. A key aspect of these books is that they are each told in creative ways from the perspective of a person on their own faith journey. This journey is revealed in the pages of their stories. Through this, they have demonstrated the meaning of evangelism.

Many people are resistant to the term, evangelism. Much of this resistance stems from negative experiences which they have had in life when a person tries to aggressively communicate their beliefs to the one listening. Within that communication there may exist words that are easily perceived as threats or attempts to generate fear in order to get the listener to adopt the beliefs being presented. Many Christians do not wish to be associated with this type of behavior, so they shy away from the term evangelism or evangelizing.

In truth, evangelism is actually sharing the good news found in the message of Jesus Christ. The best way of communicating this good news, the love of God extended to everyone as exemplified in Christ’s death and resurrection, is by sharing a person’s own faith journey with another. This is exactly what the authors of the books I mentioned above did for various reasons. In this manner, there is no pushing beliefs on others since each person decides if they read the book or not. There is no fear or threat found in the pages of these books. Instead, they share a story and in the process invite others to explore and discover the Good News.

Here we have an excellent example of what every believer is called to do in their life. Every believer is asked to share their own story. The manner in which the individual may choose to share the story is based on the gifts and talents of that person. There is no special formula which must be followed. Just share. In each of our faith stories there is inspiration and motivation.

Most Important

Those within the Christian faith (and those who are not) have just celebrated the holiday of Easter. For Christians, this celebration is one which remembers the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. This day marks the end of a week which has become known as Holy Week. Holy Week recalls significant events Including:

  • Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem which turns into a procession with palm branches
  • Jesus’ final meal which Jesus has with the closest of his disciples
  • Jesus’ arrest by the temple guards, his “trials” before the religious leader
  • Jesus’ appearances before Pilate and Herod
  • Jesus’ crucifixion and death
  • Jesus’ body being placed in a tomb

For non-Christians, this celebration focuses solely on the Easter Bunny, hiding Easter eggs and all types of sweets and candies. Christians also take part in these fun activities. Our Jewish brothers and sisters also celebrate Passover which is significant in the Christian history as well.

The other significant celebration which is shared by Christians and non-Christians is Christmas. The Christian focus is on the incarnation of God in Jesus. Non-Christians focus on Santa Claus. Jews celebrate Hanukkah around the same time as well. A majority share in the giving of gifts, festive decorations, Santa Claus, and family gatherings.

As a Christian leader, I have wrestled with how our traditions and actions deal with both of these holidays which are significant celebrations of events in our faith. I would argue that Christmas appears to be much more important to us than Easter. Looking at the preparation, the amount of gatherings, the type of decorating, and the amount of money we spend on Christmas, our behaviors give this indication.

On an emotional level, I get it. Celebrating a birth is much more uplifting and exciting than acknowledging a torturous death followed by the foreign concept of a full, bodily resurrection. The time of the year may also have some influence. Christmas is celebrated around the winter solstice which is a very dark, and in many parts a very cold, time of year. We all need something to lift our spirits and give us hope. Easter is celebrated in the early part of spring when we are seeing new life and warming temperatures, so we already are experiencing a renewal of hope.

On a theological level, I think the emphasis is backwards. While the incarnation of God is truly amazing and unique to Christianity, and while birth has to be necessary in Jesus’ story before the events around Easter can even happen, the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection has much greater significance in our faith, life, understanding of God, and life after death. Without Easter, Christmas would be just a celebration of another human birth. Easter gives us the basis of the Christian faith. The message of Easter will be what Peter proclaims during the Jewish Festival of Passover which is considered the birth of the Christian faith. The message of Easter is an outward demonstration of the love and grace which only God could provide.

I realize that economic and traditional behaviors will not be altered by my thoughts here. I can only hope that for those who acknowledge their belief in the risen Jesus, the Christ, it will cause all to pause and examine the behaviors. Maybe even work to bring the level of our Easter celebrations up to the minimum of our Christmas celebrations.

New Life

While winter in Texas is not as cold or stagnant as winter in Iowa, over half of the trees are without leaves, the grass turns brown, and the color of flowers is limited. With the approach of spring, all this changes. Over the last few weeks, we have seen significant change in the landscape. Trees are flowering and budding. The garden centers are stocked with flowers ready to be planted. The sun has increased in its warmth. Rains are helping green to reenter the grass and other plants. New life is arriving daily.

Currently in the Christian Church calendar, we are in the season of Lent. Lent is a time for personal reflection, recommitment to spiritual disciplines, and a time to await new life. The new life which becomes a reality is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which is a reminder of our mortality and forty days later (Sundays are not counted) we are reminded of the truth of new life we share with Christ.

I am sure that the correlation of the transition from winter to spring and Lent to Easter is not coincidence. Just as spring provides new life for God’s creation, Easter provides new life for God’s children. As a child of God, I anticipate the fulfillment of the resurrection in me as much as I anticipate the witnessing of new life during spring. I yearn for both of them. Every Easter I celebrate the truth of my new life while I watch the promise of new life in creation.

What does spring mean for you? How does Lent and Easter create anticipation for you? Where do you see God’s promises fulfilled around you?

May the promise of new life in Jesus Christ fill you with anticipation and great joy. May the witnessing of new life in creation be a present reminder of this promise for you.

Carrying the Load

Living in the community which I now live in, I have become much more aware of the number of semi-trucks and trains which carry freight around our nation. The semi-trucks were not all that new to me since I lived near an interstate highway which transverses from east to west coast and another which transverses down the middle of our nation. However, I thought transporting by train was from an earlier era in our country’s history. I can definitely say it is not since I now cross at least four train tracks to do a lot of my shopping. The number of times I am stopped at a train crossing is amazing. These observations led me to think about how the loads of life are carried.

Who carries your burden or load in life?

One of the items which I picked up when I did a lot of counseling of individuals is the importance of support systems. Life is clearly unpredictable. No life escapes challenges, hardships, and brokenness. During those periods in a person’s life, having friends and family who can offer support, a listening ear, or solicited counsel can make a tremendous difference. If someone is able to walk the path with you, then there is less of a feeling of isolation. Another person can assist you in putting your burden in perspective. While you still will need to walk the path and carry the majority of the load, having a support system can ease that load for you.

The gift of family and friends is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to provide rest for all who are weary and burdened. (See Matthew 11:28). The Lord understands the loads which we carry. We were never intended to live life alone. God saw the importance of having others to assist us at the very beginning of creation. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” We are to have a helper or set of helpers to join in carrying our load.

I know that there are some people who try to carry their burdens by themselves. This type of person does not share with others those times when challenges come their way. The person may even place a lot of effort into presenting an image that they are fine. They may choose not to share out of shame, guilt, or because being self-reliant was modeled in an extreme way to them. For anyone who chooses this approach, I want to say this is definitely not what God intends. God has given others to carry the load with us. Do not let this gift go to waste.

So who assists you in carrying the load? Who are the individuals which have been placed in your life right now who can provide comfort, counsel, encouragement? If you have not, identify those people now. Utilize them to help carry your burden. You do not have to go through anything alone.

The Struggle

I saw a person wearing a t-shirt which read, “The struggle is real.” After reading the words on the shirt, I began to ponder some questions. What is the struggle? Is it life? Is it a specific situation? Is it a project or task upon which effort is being made? Is it something spiritual? Is this in reference to an addiction? What exactly are we talking about here? Then I came to realize that the specifics are not what matters, what matters is the acknowledgment that for this person the struggle is real.

The truth is that all of us have struggles whether we declare it by wearing a t-shirt or if we keep them to ourselves. For some of us the struggles change over time. Others have a constant struggle like those dealing with addictions. There are times the struggle seems overwhelming. At different times we may even be able to manage the struggle and even overcome it. While facing whatever struggle is in our life, that struggle is completely real to us.

During his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who faced struggles. In the Bible, these struggles at times are verbalized in a spiritual sense using words which conjure up images of demons. An example of this is the man who is found naked in the graveyards outside of Gerasenes. Different stories of struggle are shared using words which create the idea of physical abnormalities. The man who was blind is an example of this imagery. In every one of the stories about Jesus encountering people with struggles, Jesus demonstrates a loving response. Jesus does not minimize their struggles but instead shows compassion, a willingness to listen, and provides for their needs. This example is one which can be very important as we strive to understand how to respond to the struggles of those around us.

Jesus also encountered struggles of his own. Stories of Jesus struggling to continuously minister to those around him are numerous throughout the Gospels. Jesus also struggles with the frustration of his message not being heard and understood by those with whom he speaks. The most poignant display of Jesus’ struggle is when he is in the olive trees on the Mount of Olives, the night of his arrest. The struggle is so intense that the author of Luke shares, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Again, Jesus gives us an example of what to do when our struggle seems so real, every time he would go to the Father in prayer.

Yes, the struggle is real, but Jesus provides examples of how to handle the struggle. Whether the struggle is someone else’s or our own, Jesus shows us the way.

A Savior

One of the challenges which I see in the church, especially among leaders, is confusion over who is the savior. The problem is not that these leaders, and some members, struggle to come up with a description of Jesus Christ. Many of them do a great job of telling the life story of Jesus, talking about his earthly ministry, and giving a theological explanation regarding his death and resurrection. The issue is that in their zeal for fulfilling the Great Commandment, they begin to think that they are responsible for ensuring the salvation of others. This could not be farther from the truth.

Jesus came with a purpose, some may even say a call. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy all the barriers between humanity and God. God’s desire is that all may experience the fullness of God’s love in a lasting relationship with God. The difficulty in the achievement of this is humans have chosen often to take paths which lead them away from God. These paths make us vulnerable to committing unloving actions and to experience the impact of those actions taken by others. They also can give us a distorted understanding of love. Jesus’ ministry was focused on correcting this distortion and showing how these paths lead us away from God.

Jesus broke down social barriers which humanity created amongst themselves. Jesus presented a definition of love that was unconditional and with a focus toward others and not self. He reminded everyone what it meant to be in relationship with God. Actions which he took supported his words and showed us how we are to demonstrate God’s love to one another. All this culminated in his loving action taken on a cross where he gave his life to remove any remaining barriers we might have between us and God.

That final action by Jesus which led to his death and resurrection is sufficient for all people. Through this action, Jesus saved us from the paths we take which lead us away from the love of God. Jesus does not need us to recreate or to add to this action. Instead, Jesus told us to go out into the world and to tell all the people of his breaking of all barriers. More importantly, Jesus desires us to demonstrate this work in our own actions and words.

There is not one of us who is the Savior. That position has been filled by Jesus Christ. We do not have it within our abilities to break down the ultimate barrier between God and humanity. What we do have is the ability to introduce the Savior to others by our lives. Our expressing of the love of God and attributing that love for the choices we make in life will open doors for individuals to first experience and then begin to understand what God’s love is truly about.

YOU ARE NOT THE SAVIOR! Instead, spend your time introducing the Savior to others through your life and the sharing of God’s love.