Tag Archives: Grace

Glory, Suffering, and Sacred Space

Many traditions and cultures in and through which the Church has found its liveliness – growing tree-like in different climates and biomes – celebrate the glory of God through praise, liturgy, proclamation, and testimony. All glory, we say or preach or sing, belongs to God. And we affirm that along with the Church across time and space; or beyond time and space, or entangled with time and space, or the Church in all dimensions. We join with the great cloud of witnesses and we bear witness with the visible and invisible realms.

What happens, though, when the glory of God is rendered mechanically into a system?

One time I was privy to a conversation streaked through with sadness and earnest discomfort. Someone aching with the ongoing hollow of loss was squirming at the language of glory – not squirming at perceived distance of God, as one might expect from a person shrouded in grief. The splintering began when loss suddenly slid a new filter on years of absorbing sermons that framed the glory of God in a particular way. Like a trip to the optometrist, lens option one or lens option two can suddenly clarify perception. Circumstances in life often do the same thing; it doesn’t matter how old or young, wise or inexperienced someone is. It is often disorienting, sometimes overwhelming, and depending on the new perspective gained, can bring relief or distress.

The splintering continued. What had been preached – even what had been sung – seemed alien now. Naturally, times of grief and loss throw a great deal into upheaval; most people have questions, and any liminal period is one of undoing and not yet mended. At the same time, if there are genuine fault lines in a particular theological perspective, they will not escape the ruthless honesty of grief.

What was so grating about the language of glory?

It was regularly deployed as a sufficient reason for the worst suffering a twisted world could retch up. The worst thing that could ever happen to you or someone you know – God’s glory demanded it as necessary: the corrosive decay of evil splitting your world rendered as a necessary avenue for the glory of God to parade down.

(This is adjacent to sound reasons for rejecting o felix culpa. For Arminian/Wesleyan Methodists, it may be unsurprising that this ongoing appeal to God’s glory was built from the scaffolding of predestination – though before a sense of self-satisfaction sinks in, we should recall how many of our pews have welcomed resources from a variety of doctrinal perspectives that are sometimes at odds with our own.)

And so, after year absorbing these themes, in the hollow of loss, deep discomfort erupted in response to the language of glory. This – for God’s glory? Is there no value in relieving the suffering of the sufferer? How could such a big God seem so dependent on carefully deferential praise from mortals? How could this not eventually convey that the most vile suffering to sicken the globe was belittled or dismissed? In the face of theodicy, the appeal to glory was a mechanical response, but not only to suffering; to glory itself.

To mute the reality of suffering is to mute questions. But questions must have space to be asked or yelled or wailed in order for the questions to slowly shift from reaction to silence, silence to focus, focus to creation. A question asked in suffering may crack open space for questions asked in creativity. The natural end of grief may be generative; creative – but only if grief is genuinely not belittled or dismissed. (For a nuanced approach to an artist’s theology of mending see Makoto Fujimura’s Art + Faith: A Theology of Making.) One cannot be led by the questions that sprout from suffering to the questions that give way to awe – the genuinely appropriate response to the glory of Triune love – if the questions raised by suffering are treated as irksome signs that one has not yet fully appreciated what the faith is about. And yet space for even a few seconds of grounded wonder is space that is just beginning to gently unfurl hope, one tight leaf at a time.

(Just one minor dimension of the problematic appeal to God’s glory as the justification that a child is parentless or a parent is childless or a group commits genocide is that this kind of sermon rarely is preached in any kind of setting that suggests that God’s glory is worth emptying the building fund for. One doesn’t have to reach far into the imagination for the grim flicker of florescent lighting over the padded stackable chairs that replaced the pews twenty years ago: hardly the ornate interior of an awe-inspiring soaring cathedral. When discomfort shifts and shrugs at language of God’s glory, it is sometimes when the point is housed primarily in proclamation, in traditions with little attachment to sacred architecture and/or iconography.)

More to the point – when language is deployed in preaching on suffering and the demands of God’s glory, but Word is untethered from Table, there is enormous loss. A sacramental approach to the Eucharist will find itself tasting the grace of glory that suffers for us. Here, “your worst hellish nightmare is how you best pave the way for God’s glory” is ground to dust – like a golden calf pulverized and stirred into water; but the drink we find is not the cup of Moses’ rage, idol and water swirling. At the Table, we find our withered notions of fragile golden glory transformed; the cup transformed. At the Table, you drink the truth that while you may have heard your suffering was for God’s glory, in fact, God’s glory is for you; Glory suffered for you. The blood of Glory, shed for you. It was not God’s glory razing your innocence or demanding tribute; God’s glory makes all things marred by evil new.

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain; worthy is the Glory that became flesh; worthy is the Glory that suffered in Gethsemane, that stumbled carrying the cross, that harrowed hell, that startled women in a garden.

God’s sovereignty pulses as even the worst bitter corrosion of a world gone wrong is melted into pathways of grace – not a parade for a tyrant’s glory. You and I respond to the glory of God’s love when we find hope on the paths of grace that God’s creative love fashions out of suffering. And on those paths of grace, bit by bit, you will find the questions borne in suffering slowly threading into questions of wonder that, like our Creator, create.

Featured image courtesy K. Mitch Hodge via Unsplash

El Carácter de un Wesleyano

En estos días se está hablando mucho en mi (ciertamente muy limitado) sector del mundo sobre lo que significa ser wesleyano. En este caso, “wesleyano” no se refiere a una denominación en particular, sino a una corriente teológica más amplia que nació a través de un movimiento del siglo XVIII y que se definió en gran medida por los comentarios y sermones de John Wesley.

El propio Wesley escribió una vez un tratado llamado “El Carácter de un Metodista.” Según su definición, un metodista es feliz, lleno de amor, orante, puro de corazón, de espíritu de servicio, conocido por su fruto.

En esta época, parece importante articular más los distintivos que nos hacen metodistas. En mi propio estudio, descubrí esta fuerte reflexión sobre el carácter de un wesleyano escrita hace más de una década por Kent Hill, entonces presidente de Eastern Nazarene College. Sus pensamientos resuenan, así que los comparto como un punto de partida para su propia formación de una definición de lo que significa ser wesleyano.

¿Qué significa ser wesleyano?

Primero, ser wesleyano significa reconocer la primacía de la autoridad bíblica. John Wesley nunca dejó ninguna duda en cuanto a sus convicciones en esta área. En una carta de 1739, declaró inequívocamente: “No permito otra regla, ya sea de fe o de práctica, que las Sagradas Escrituras …” Wesley se tomó tan en serio que las Escrituras desempeñaran el papel principal en lo que pensaba y en cómo vivía, que sus sermones y cartas están impregnados de frases bíblicas. Se convirtió en parte de su propio lenguaje.

En segundo lugar, ser wesleyano significa ser consciente y orgullosamente parte de la amplia y antigua tradición de la fe cristiana. No pertenecemos a una secta religiosa que nació a mediados del siglo XVIII. En 1777, en la fundación de City Road Chapel en Londres, Wesley describió el movimiento del metodismo de esta manera: “El metodismo, así llamado, es la religión antigua, la religión de la Biblia, la religión de la Iglesia primitiva, la religión del Iglesia de Inglaterra. Esta vieja religión … no es otra que el amor, el amor de Dios y de toda la humanidad.” Si somos fieles a nuestra herencia wesleyana, no solo podemos, sino que estamos obligados a, basarnos ampliamente en la tradición cristiana.

En tercer lugar, ser wesleyano no solo permite, sino que requiere que seamos ecuménicos. Aunque John Wesley creía firmemente en sus convicciones teológicas, nunca perdió de vista el hecho de que el Cuerpo de Cristo es mucho más grande que cualquier tradición o perspectiva teológica. No barrió bajo la alfombra las importantes divisiones teológicas que existían, ni permitió que esas diferencias nublaran la realidad más amplia de que lo que tenemos en común a través de los credos es de primordial importancia. En el ecumenismo de Wesley, hubo un compromiso con una humanidad común en Cristo.

Cuarto, ser wesleyano significa afirmar la doctrina cardinal de la justificación por gracia a través de la fe. La salvación se basa en los méritos de la justicia de Cristo y se apropia por la fe, que es un don de la gracia de Dios. Wesley insistió en que debemos responder al regalo de Dios mediante actos de obediencia que fluyen de la fe. Wesley creía que los humanos nunca pueden hacer lo suficiente para merecer la salvación; sin embargo, enseñó que Dios en su soberanía nos concede una medida de libertad para responder a su gracia transformadora, y si nos negamos a responder, entonces no seremos salvos ni transformados.

En quinto lugar, ser wesleyano significa reconocer que la gracia de Dios es “transformadora” y “perdonadora.” Esto se encuentra en el meollo de lo que se puede llamar el distintivo teológico central del pensamiento de John Wesley: la búsqueda, por la gracia de Dios, de la santidad o santificación. La gracia es más que la “gracia creadora” que ha formado todas las cosas. Es incluso más que la gracia “perdonadora” que nos perdona nuestros pecados. Es la gracia “transformadora” que, por obra del Espíritu Santo, nos permite conformarnos cada vez más a la imagen de Jesucristo.

En sexto lugar, ser wesleyano significa ser apologistas efectivos de la fe cristiana. La vida y el ministerio de John Wesley reflejan una respuesta convincente al mandamiento registrado en 1 Pedro 3: 15-16: “Al contrario, honren en su corazón a Cristo, como Señor, y manténganse siempre listos para defenderse, con mansedumbre y respeto, ante aquellos que les pidan explicarles la esperanza que hay en ustedes. Tengan una buena conciencia, para que sean avergonzados aquellos que murmuran y dicen que ustedes son malhechores, y los calumnian por su buena conducta en Cristo.” (RVC) Si reflejamos una perspectiva wesleyana, cultivaremos oportunidades para usar las Escrituras, la amplia tradición cristiana, la razón y la experiencia en defensa de la fe. Y lo haremos de una manera que muestre moderación y amor frente a las críticas.

Séptimo, para ser wesleyano se requiere un compromiso con el discipulado y la responsabilidad. Específicamente, requiere de nosotros un compromiso con la importancia del discipulado cristiano estructurado. En junio de 1779, Wesley escribió en su diario: “Este mismo día escuché muchas verdades excelentes pronunciadas en la kirk (iglesia). Pero, como no había ninguna aplicación, era probable que hiciera tanto bien como el canto de una alondra.” Además de la participación en pequeños grupos de rendición de cuentas, Wesley insistió en la importancia de las devociones privadas, la participación en reuniones más grandes de la iglesia, la toma de los sacramentos, y los actos de misericordia.

Octavo, ser wesleyano significa estar involucrado en ministerios compasivos. John Wesley siempre creyó que era imperativo que un seguidor de Jesucristo estuviera simultáneamente comprometido con la relación vertical esencial con su Creador y con la relación necesaria y redentora con el resto de la Creación de Dios. Si este último no está presente, Wesley insistió en que hay algo fundamentalmente incorrecto en el primero. Ninguna posición podría estar más claramente arraigada en Cristo, quien declaró en Mateo 25 que “todo lo que hiciste por uno de estos hermanos míos más pequeños, lo hiciste por mí.”

Ojalá que en nuestros días veamos un renacimiento del metodismo con tal fuerza y ​​carácter que recupere su capacidad de acoger y hacer avanzar el Reino de Dios.

La traducción por Rev. Dr. Edgar Bazan/Translation by Rev. Dr. Edgar Bazan.

Featured image courtesy Mateus Campos Felipe for Unsplash.

Hope Is Not a Luxury: The Essential Anchor

According to the church calendar, we are in the season of Eastertide which marks the 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. I like the idea of Easter being more than just a morning or a day but a whole season in which we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and what it means for our lives. There are many angles from which we can look at the topic of hope and explore what it means to live hopefully.

Let’s focus on a couple of verses in Hebrews 6 that use the symbol of an anchor to describe hope. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,  where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20a, NIV)

Maybe it would be helpful to touch on a definition of hope. Sometimes we can get a little fuzzy about the difference between hope and faith. Here are some definitions that help me keep them separate in my mind:

Faith involves trust. When we have faith, we are trusting in someone or something.  Having faith means that we trust God’s promises to be true, largely in part because we trust God to be true.

Hope is confident waiting. Hope allows us to wait confidently for God to keep his promises.

Here’s an example that all the teachers and students will like:

The last day of the school year is coming up. In my county it is Friday, May 21st. That is the day my home turns into a frat house. Teachers and students can have faith in that. It hasn’t happened yet, but they are confident it will. They have faith, based on the promise of the school calendar and a history of the county adhering to the calendar.  

Hope is what fuels the end-of-the-year excitement and planning. Hope is what drives students and teachers to countdown the days and plan what they are going to do first. Hope gives a vision of what summer life will be.

Hope turns the last few weeks of school from a march through time into a journey toward summer! Can you sense the difference I’m talking about?  Faith gets us there, but hope makes it a much fuller experience.

After sitting with this for a while, I wonder if we might be operating with a deficit of hope.  Maybe some of us are going through the motions of faithful living without the benefit of hope.

I want to share with you the story of how this sermon came together. I have a process of preparing. I wrote a sermon, but I didn’t like it. I started over. I stayed up late and wrote another version of the sermon which was a bit better – but still not great. Then, in the quiet of my house, I heard, “You struggle to hope. You are having a hard time communicating about hope, because you struggle to hope.” So I called it a night and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and while I was making sandwiches, I heard, “Tell them you struggle to hope.” You want me to begin a sermon on hope, by announcing that I struggle to hope?!  Yes!

So, I am telling you that I struggle with hope. It makes sense based on my story. Wounded by people who should have known and done better. It’s like I was programmed at an early age not to hope for things – things I should have been able to count on. 

God has healed me and is healing me, but I didn’t even realize until this week that life had snipped the wires in my soul that were connected to hope. The good news is when God shines the light on something in your soul, it’s usually because God is ready to work there.

The first thing I’ve learned while wrestling with hope is that hope is essential. Hope is not a bonus. Sometimes we are tempted to think hope is a nice extra or a soft emotion that feels like a luxury more than a necessity. But in reality, hope is a very powerful force that God gives to those who believe. It turns the Christian life from a heads-down march toward eternity into abundant life.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul boils down the essentials of the Christian life to faith, hope and love – the big three. Paul writes that we can’t do the Christian life without hope.  By putting them together, he is saying that hope is as indispensable as faith and love. It’s not the “frosting on the cake” for those lucky enough to be predisposed to hopefulness. Hope is mixed into the cake batter. It can’t be separated out.

But here’s more good news. God has promised to provide everything we need. Just like faith and love, hope is a grace, a gift. God can restore the ability to hope.  We don’t have to work it up or manufacture it within ourselves. We can ask and God will give it. In fact, I believe God is always offering us what we need. So: is there something that needs to be healed so that you can receive God’s hope?

We don’t get the option of putting hope in the “bonus” category for super-Christians, or for naïve Christians who just haven’t learned to lower their expectations yet. We are all called to hope.

How might this happen?

You must be connected to the anchor.

Let’s go back now to Hebrews 6: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,  where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.”

The Bible uses a lot of figurative language. Have you ever noticed how timeless most of these word pictures are? We still plant with seeds. We still care for animals. Potters still work with clay, and we bake with yeast. Those pictures would translate for thousands of years.

And here, Scripture offers us another image. Hope is like an anchor. The basic design and function of anchors have not changed very much since Hebrews was written. It’s not complicated. You find something heavy, tie a rope to it, and toss it overboard!

So when the writer of Hebrews mentions an anchor here, we all get an instant picture in our minds. It almost immediately begins to speak to us at a deeper level. Reading the “anchor” entry on Wikipedia was almost like reading a devotional! “An anchor prevents drifting due to wind or current.”  That preaches, doesn’t it? “Without an anchor, a craft will drift in whatever direction the current is going. Anchors allow a boater to stop rowing or park the boat. Anchors can be used as an emergency brake to keep from crashing into other vessels or obstacles.”

Here’s something that makes the anchor a great symbol for hope. It’s not enough to be convinced an anchor is a good idea, or even just to buy an anchor. It’s not enough to bring your anchor with you on your boat trip. You have to be connected to the anchor before it’s any use.

It would be ridiculous to toss an anchor overboard that wasn’t connected to the boat! The anchor would do exactly what it was meant to do – it would sink to the bottom and stay there. But without a connection, it does the boat no good.

You and I have to be connected to our anchor. And the writer of Hebrews wants us to know that we aren’t just connecting to the universe or some unspecified force of goodness as our hope.  Hebrews chapters one through five lay out the case for who Jesus is. By the time we get to chapter six, there should be no confusion. We are called to place all of our faith and hope in Jesus. Jesus is our hope; Jesus is the anchor.

Just believing that Jesus is Lord, though, is like buying an anchor and putting it in the boat.  But in order for an anchor to work, it has to be connected. And we have to be connected to Jesus through trust to receive the promise of anchoring hope.

What is your connection to Jesus like? Connection isn’t formed by having information about him. We must have personal trust. Think of the ways you are connected to the people you love.  You may anticipate what they are thinking. You recognize the sound of their voice. You are comforted by their presence. You enjoy just being together and look forward to seeing them.

We can be connected to Jesus in similar ways. If you are struggling with hope or anything else promised to believers, check the connection. It might be that you are tossing your anchor overboard without a rope attached. Your church family stands ready to help you form this connection. We love to walk with people as they form trust with God.

Sometimes, the first step is to disconnect from other things you’ve been using as an anchor.  Humans crave all sorts of things to provide security. It might be wealth, education, skills and abilities, health. Eventually, all these temporary anchors prove to be insufficient. At some point, our boat will get too big, or the water too deep, or the winds too strong, and these anchors will fail. 

What are you using as an anchor? Anything less than a living hope in Jesus won’t be strong enough.

When an anchor is connected by rope, a boater doesn’t attach it once and then walk off to never think about it again. Rope isn’t indestructible. It can rot if it’s not tended to. This connection between the boat and anchor needs care and attention just like anything that you want to last. Take some time this week to sit with that image; ask God to help you see what you need to notice about your connection.

And when that connection is strong, we can confidently throw our anchor overboard, knowing it will hold us in place even if we lose sight of it. Are you willing to lose sight of the anchor?

Look at Hebrews again: “It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain where our forerunner Jesus has entered on our behalf.”

This is a reference to the Old Testament temple design that created a space called the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest would enter to meet with God on behalf of the people. It was separated from the public space by a curtain. What happened behind the curtain was hidden. The writer of Hebrews says when we lower our anchor of hope in Jesus, we lose sight of it. It enters into the inner sanctuary where the High Priest – Jesus – is at work.

I hear two things in this description:

First, we don’t always get to see what God is doing. It may be hidden out of sight from us. What’s the question we deal with the most – why? Why expresses our desire to see what’s happening under water or behind the curtain. But this image of the anchor helps us. Boaters learn to trust the anchor is working, even though they can’t see it. Only in the most shallow, clear water can you see your anchor.  But who wants to stay there? The good work happens in the deep places.

The same is true in our life of faith. The good work happens in the deep places: the places where we can’t see the bottom. That’s where we begin to trust the mystery of God’s work.  God challenges us to learn to live in the unknown of the deep. Don’t get nervous, lose hope, and move back to the shore.  Hope reminds us of what is happening beneath the surface that we can’t see.

Second, we need to be willing to move our anchoring spot from where we want to be to where God wants to go. Here’s a tough question one writer asked: “Are we hoping or merely wishing?” 

Wishing is focused on getting what we want. Hoping is anchored in what God is doing. 

One commentator writes, “The wings of hope were given not that we might flutter near the earth, but that we might rise to God. Do not let yourself be so absorbed by anticipations of what you are going to do and where you are going to be tomorrow that you have no space to think of what you are going to do and where you are going to be through eternity.”  (Alexander MacLaren, Expositions on Holy Scripture)

Wishes just “flutter near the earth.” Wishing wants things. Hope connects us to Jesus – who he is and what he is doing.  What will it look like to hope more deeply? To release our anchor beneath the water line – into the “Holy of Holies” – where God dwells?

This is what it means to have an anchored soul. And what does an anchored soul look like? It looks like Jesus.

We watch him as he walked from the deprivation and temptation of the desert all the way through the abandonment and suffering of Holy Week. The winds blew and the current pulled. He was hungry. He was harassed by Satan. His friends betrayed him. He was misunderstood and falsely accused. He suffered pain and humiliation. Not robotically: he wasn’t numb or immune to reality. He asked questions. He needed comforting. But his anchor held.

We contrast that with Peter. His was an unanchored soul until the Spirit came to rest on him at Pentecost. Jesus had shared with him God’s plan, but he couldn’t wait confidently. When the winds picked up around him, he swung from violence to deceit to despair. He was all over the place. He was an unanchored soul.

An anchored soul may face challenges without rethinking the whole plan. An anchored soul waits gracefully. An anchored soul doesn’t panic when God’s plan doesn’t come with a briefing manual. An anchored soul holds steady.

To hope for something can feel very vulnerable. We all know what it feels like to be disappointed when things we hoped for didn’t work out. Maybe you’ve had the wires cut to the part of your soul that hopes.

Are you willing to trust God to reconnect them? To hope isn’t a sign of weakness or naivete. It is a courageous choice. This is the point where we decide how we are going to respond.

Maybe you didn’t know God has offered to anchor your life.

Maybe something about your connection to your anchor needs attention.

Maybe God is inviting you into deeper waters and you’re testing the unknown.

Community is a great gift when we are struggling to hope. That’s one reason why God invites us to gather together. Sometimes we need the community to hold us while we struggle with hope.

Can you let someone pray for you? I’m going to. I’m going to respond to my own teaching. I feel like God invited me too while I was making sandwiches. I want to be more hopeful. I want to receive the grace of hope, and this feels like a good place to start.

Featured image courtesy Grant Durr Photos via Unsplash.

Reacting to the Image of God: Wesley and Worth

I try my best not to get drawn into the hot fire of the cultural moment. One of my great fears for our moment is that we will all become reactionary, driven more by emotions than reason (or if we are religious an overarching theological perspective). We react to culture, we react to others, we react to ourselves. Reacting like this often means that we don’t take time to stop, think, pray, and discern. In seminary, a professor named Dr. Knickerbocker said, “always watch what word we use. Do we say ‘I feel’? Or ‘I think’? Or ‘I believe’?” Our feelings may be valid, and reason is just as fallen and faulty as emotion. But in a reactionary moment, I try to stay non-reactive.

As a follower of Jesus, I’ve found that Wesleyan theology animates how and why I interact with people. One of the greatest theological works ever, in my opinion, is John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” In this sermon, Wesley lays out a concept you may be familiar with: his understanding of grace – prevenient, the grace that goes before; justifying, the grace of conversion; and sanctifying, the grace of Christian growth.

There are so many takeaways from his theology but primary to me is the understanding that God is the first and primary actor in our salvation. We do not save ourselves by anything that we can do. God is the first actor. He calls us (prevenient), saves us (justifying), and grows us (sanctifying). Our very salvation is the work of God. In fact, in a recent sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we looked at how our very salvation is a Trinitarian act. We are brought to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. We are saved only through God’s work.

But here is why this matters in a reactionary culture. Why must God be the first actor? Why does salvation rest on God’s action, not on ours? The reason is original sin, sometimes called the doctrine of depravity. When Adam and Eve fell, they took all of humanity with them. (Romans 5: 121 Corinthians 15: 20-21) This doctrine says that when they fell, we as humans fell with them. We are sinful, corrupt, whatever term or adjective you’d like to use. We are sinful. You. Me. All of us. It is part of the human condition.

Now here is the question. What does that mean? We know all humans are made in the image of God. (Genesis 1: 26-27) But sin has entered in. What does that do to the image of God within us? One theological perspective is that the image of God is completely destroyed: nothing good is left within us. From this perspective, we are completely dead in our sins. Sin destroyed that goodness of God. Yes, we are made in God’s image, but we most certainly are not good. That view is a dominant theme within modern American evangelicalism. As I’ve heard it said, a dead man can’t crawl out of a burning house, and the only thing we deserve is hellfire.

That way of thinking is not how Wesley looked at things. Wesley understood the reality of human sin, yes; but he believed that while the fall corrupted the image of God within us, it didn’t destroy it. Ted Runyan has a wonderful book called The New Creation that covers this subject in-depth. His entire point is that the fall corrupted that image of God within us – it is in need of redemption – but is not completely gone. We humans remain of great worth, and there is the hope for salvation for all. (John 3:161 Timothy 2: 3-4)

This is the reason I am so drawn to Wesleyan theology. Without a doubt, we need salvation. And we are sinful. We can’t save ourselves. But that image of God, while corrupted, has not been completely destroyed. Prevenient grace extends to us an awakening of that image that allows us to walk toward God’s offer of grace.

This cultural moment would teach us to see other people as our enemy. To see people only deserving of judgment, especially those who are not Christians or those who we may disagree with. Those who may vote differently, live differently, act differently. We could easily take on the view of sin that casts them out and removes their worth. It is tempting to harden to our sides; they are over the line, they are on the other side.

Of course, I want to be clear. I believe in sin, judgment, and hell. No one comes to the Father but through the Son. (John 14:6) Sin is destructive; it destroys God’s prize creation, humanity. (John 10:10) This is not an apology for sin. It is a call to love all people in the way that God does. Our societal moment can take from us the desire to truly see the worth in others. The worth in those who are wrong. The worth in those we would see as even our enemies. The path of Christ calls us to love even the enemy. (Matthew 5:43-48Romans 5:10)

As a follower of Christ and as a pastor, I want to speak against racism and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the racist. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. I want to speak against immorality and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the immoral. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. As a fallen human, my guilt is the same as anyone I preach to. In my calling, I want to hold out hope for redemption to those of infinite worth in the same way I respond to it myself. I never want to discount the worth of people, no matter who they are, what they do, or what they believe. Because everyone is truly loved by God who wants to redeem them.

I want as many people as possible to know the love of Jesus. Some would say that because of their sin, those who do not know Jesus are hostile to him and aren’t interested in knowing God at all. Maybe. But when I read Scripture, I see a lot of people who did not know Jesus but who wanted to know him. And today, I see a lot of people who do not know Jesus and who are very hostile to the Church. But there is still a fascination with Jesus and the Church. There is a yearning spiritually. It’s not surprising; Scripture says God has written eternity on the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Recently, I read a tweet that caused me to think a lot. By how I love others, do I make hell a more appealing place for folks to want to be than church? I want those who do not know Jesus Christ to be drawn to him and follow him. That is my one true desire for ministry. I want folks of all kinds to know their worth to Jesus. And if I all do is extend a metaphorical middle finger or kick sand in their face, how will know they know Jesus? Because that’s what I want more than anything else: for as many as possible to know Jesus.

I don’t want to get involved in hardening my heart at others, because I want all people, all people, to know Jesus. This world is calling me and you to harden our hearts to others. To write them off. To deem them as enemies. Maybe people in the church are calling us to do that. Maybe even preachers are calling us to do that. But I don’t believe that is right, and it isn’t Wesleyan. In one recent article, the author pointed out that for the first time in history, non-churchgoers make up the majority of the population in America. This is the context we live in now. We can choose to bemoan where we are. We can harden our sides and opinions. We can see our neighbors as our enemy and give up any hope for their redemption. We can harden our opinions, shout the loudest, and condemn the most. But I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus or the way of Wesley. I want as many as possible to know Jesus.

And that starts with each of us knowing our worth in Jesus and seeing others’ worth in Jesus. Even the folks we can’t stand.

Cómo es la Providencia

A veces parece que las personas que provienen de orígenes metodistas wesleyanos tienen una relación “a distancia” con la idea de la providencia. En su nivel más básico, la providencia es la actividad de Dios que lleva a cabo los planes redentores de Dios para su creación. Es Dios elaborando un plan de rescate para la creación, y la idea de que Dios está trabajando detrás de escena sin nuestra participación o cooperación es un poco desconcertante para la sensibilidad wesleyana. Porque después de todo, ¿no somos nosotros las personas que creemos en la gracia cooperante (es decir, que hay un grado de cooperación en el que participamos cuando se trata de la obra salvadora de Dios)? Somos el movimiento que enfatiza el libre albedrío humano y nuestra capacidad para elegir o rechazar el don de la gracia que Dios ofrece. “Providencia” simplemente suena demasiado a esa gente reformada o calvinista, pensamos. Pero si miramos más de cerca, vemos que el fundador de nuestro movimiento, John Wesley, tenía una comprensión muy sólida de la providencia divina. Entonces, ¿qué debemos pensar sobre la providencia como wesleyanos?

Describamos lo que no es la providencia. La providencia no significa que no tengamos libre albedrío. La providencia de Dios no descarta la libertad humana. La Providencia no se opone a la cooperación con Dios. La providencia no significa que estemos “fuera del apuro” o que no tengamos sentido de responsabilidad cuando se trata de crecimiento espiritual. Más bien, cooperamos con Dios a medida que crecemos en nuestra fe al practicar disciplinas espirituales, o los “medios de la gracia.”

Entonces, ¿qué es la providencia?

La Providencia está en el corazón de la teología cristiana. Los cristianos a lo largo de los siglos, aunque ha habido excepciones, han afirmado que Dios no es simplemente un relojero que puso el universo en movimiento y desde entonces lo ha dejado desatendido para sus propios fines. Más bien, la providencia afirma que Dios está obrando detrás de escena, a veces de manera imperceptible, pero obrando de todos modos. Basándose en siglos de comprensión cristiana, el difunto teólogo Thomas Oden definió la providencia como “la expresión de la voluntad, el poder y la bondad divinos a través de los cuales el Creador conserva a las criaturas, coopera con lo que sucederá a través de sus acciones y las guía en sus propósitos a largo plazo.” [1] La Providencia es tanto evidencia del amor de Dios por su creación como de su soberanía.

John Wesley tenía fuertes convicciones con respecto a la providencia de Dios. Con su enfoque de ambos / y, Wesley compartió una gran comprensión de la naturaleza de Dios y de la vida del discípulo cristiano a través del lente de la providencia. En su sermón, Sobre la Providencia, Wesley instó: “No hay casi ninguna doctrina en todo el ámbito de la revelación, que sea de mayor importancia que esta. Y, al mismo tiempo, hay pocos que sean tan poco considerados, y quizás tan poco comprendidos.” [2]

Mientras que los pensadores cristianos durante siglos afirmaron la omnisciencia y omnipresencia de Dios, Wesley reconoció que nuestro limitado entendimiento humano tiene problemas para comprender el concepto de la naturaleza providencial de Dios. Wesley enfatizó que deberíamos sentirnos humildes por el hecho de que Dios, infinito en sabiduría y poder, aún se preocupa por el bienestar de su creación. Wesley señaló que mientras que para Dios todas las cosas son posibles, “El que puede hacer todas las cosas no puede negarse a sí mismo.” [3] Aunque está dentro del poder de Dios destruir todo pecado y maldad en el mundo, por ejemplo, esto contradeciría La naturaleza de Dios. En particular, esto contradiría el hecho de que la humanidad fue creada a la imagen de Dios. Sin embargo, Wesley aclaró, aquí es donde la providencia de Dios entra en la ecuación. Si bien Dios permite que los seres humanos elijan entre el bien y el mal, la providencia de Dios es una obra, “para ayudar al hombre [sic] a alcanzar el fin de su ser, a obrar su propia salvación, en la medida en que se pueda hacer sin coacción, sin anular su libertad.” Wesley visualiza la providencia de Dios operando en un “círculo triple” dentro de la creación. [4]

Primero, observó Wesley, todo el universo está gobernado por Dios, incluidos los movimientos del sol, la luna y las estrellas, así como la vida animal. Más allá de este gobierno, Wesley describe tres círculos de la providencia de Dios. El primero de los tres círculos abarca a toda la humanidad. Dentro de este círculo, la providencia de Dios obra en el mundo … El segundo círculo incluye “todos los que profesan creer en Cristo.” [5] Dentro de este círculo, Dios está obrando … El círculo final y más íntimo, abarca, “verdaderos cristianos, aquellos que adoran a Dios, no sólo en forma, sino en espíritu y en verdad. Aquí están incluidos todos los que aman a Dios, o, al menos, verdaderamente temen a Dios y obran justicia; todos en los cuales está la mente que estaba en Cristo, y que caminan como Cristo también caminó.” [6] (Es interesante que Wesley argumentó que es dentro de este círculo que se realiza Lucas 12: 7: “Lo mismo pasa con ustedes, pues hasta los cabellos de su cabeza están todos contados. Así que no teman, pues ustedes valen más que muchos pajarillos.” [7] Él comentó: “Nada relativo a estos es demasiado grande, nada demasiado pequeño, para su atención.” [8] Mientras que Dios está preocupado por todos en su creación, Wesley creía que el Señor presta especial atención a aquellos que son seguidores totalmente devotos de Jesús).

A lo largo de sus escritos, incluyendo su diario y cartas, Wesley notó en muchas ocasiones el “tren de providencias” que Dios obró en situaciones particulares. A menudo atribuye palabras descriptivas adicionales como, “poco común,” “varios,” “maravilloso,” y “completo” para describir con más detalle estos casos en los que Wesley observó la mano de Dios obrando en la vida de los cristianos. Enfatizó que si bien Dios ha establecido leyes generales que gobiernan el universo, Dios es libre de “hacer excepciones a ellas, cuando le plazca.” [9] Para Wesley, el cuidado de Dios por la creación y especialmente por los seres humanos no se ve obstaculizado por las leyes del universo.

En la conclusión de su sermón, Wesley anima a los cristianos a poner toda su confianza en el Señor y no temer. La providencia de Dios significa que podemos confiar en él incluso cuando parece que nuestro mundo o el mundo entero se está desmoronando. Él no niega que enfrentaremos desafíos y dolores, sino que debemos caminar humildemente ante Dios y confiar en que “Para los que aman a Dios todas las cosas les ayudan a bien, a los que conforme a su propósito son llamados.” [10] La esperanza del cristiano es en el Señor que no solo gobierna el universo, sino que también se preocupa especialmente por los que siguen a Dios. Dios conoce la cantidad de cabellos que tienen en la cabeza. Ningún detalle escapa a su atención. La providencia de Dios nos da esperanza tanto para nuestro presente como para nuestro futuro. No se trata simplemente de decir que “todo sucede por una razón,” porque Dios no es la fuente del mal o el caos. Sin embargo, podemos confiar en que detrás de todo, Dios está obrando. No significa que todo nos irá bien, pero sí significa que Dios está con nosotros en cada paso del camino. Quizás esa fue la motivación de John Wesley en su lecho de muerte cuando pronunció las palabras: “Lo mejor de todo, es que Dios está con nosotros”. [11]

[1] Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] John Wesley, “On Divine Providence” (1786), in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson, 14 vols.,(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 6:315; hereafter cited as Works (Jackson).

[3] Ibid, p. 317

[4] This idea is from Thomas Crane in A Prospect of Divine Providence, which Wesley included in his Christian Library.

[5] Ibid, p. 319

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).

[8] Ibid., p. 320

[9] Ibid, p. 322

[10] Romans 8:28. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).

[11] Ken Collins, John Wesley: A Theological Journey, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 268.

Featured image courtesy Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

La traducción por Rev. Dr. Edgar Bazan

Epiphany: A Kaleidoscope of Mercy

We have traveled (less this year than others) through the days of Christmas feasting, arriving like the Magi at Epiphany. This is a blessing on a prosaic scale: as a child, Christmas was one day, not 12; and given all the build-up, something seemed off about abandoning festivities so quickly. The cadence of maneuver through 12 days makes more rhythmic sense in the ebb and flow of liturgical tides.

Epiphany restores to the Magi their rightful place in the sequence of the Nativity, tilting them a bit farther away from the rest of the living room Nativity sets. At a distance, the stargazers are not quite elbow to elbow with the shepherds, whose eyes were sometimes less on nighttime stars and more on the threats of their immediate surroundings. The shepherds and sheep figurines may be clustered around the Christ-child; but the Magi are still on their way.

The mercy of revelation – because revelation from an all-powerful, transcendent God of love is mercy to humans who would not be able to grasp God’s nature on our own – may vary in timing. Like a gently shifted kaleidoscope, God’s mercy appears in one set of colors and shapes, then slides and trickles into another as time passes and the kaleidoscope is moved. The tints and outlines of mercy appear to animal caretakers keeping watch at night; the kaleidoscope tilts, and the same mercy appears, this time to star-gazing scholars – to Gentiles.

Epiphany is a swirl of colors and shapes that, when tilted again, reflects the mirrored patterns of mercy in John 4. Here, we watch Jesus as he “has” to go through Samaria; we watch his disciples go into town to buy lunch; we watch him talk with a woman, a Samaritan woman, by a well. We watch him disclose to her what he rarely verbally affirmed – that he is in fact the Messiah. She doesn’t know about the myrrh and frankincense and gold that strangers brought to his parents when he was two, but she receives the same mercy that the Magi received when they brought their gifts. When the disciples return with lunch and encourage Jesus to eat, we see him respond, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” In truth, he is revealing that he has mercy that they know nothing about.

To draw from his own well of hidden mercy – this is why Jesus had to go through Samaria. At the time of his birth, what attention did the priests and scribes pay to – astronomy? Yet there was mercy hidden from their view but written in the stars.

“I have mercy you know not of.” A flash, blinding light – otherworldly beings appear to shepherds who smell of dung. An appearance in the night sky of a new celestial body captures the attention of foreign mages. A cleared throat and polite voice sounding young and ancient at the same time asks for a drink of water at a well at mid-day.

The kaleidoscope turns; the mercy of revelation remains.

Is revelation always a mercy? Yes – even if it is our undoing. Madeleine L’Engle wrote of this trade in an Epiphany poem, “One King’s Epiphany” –

I shall miss the stars.

Not that I shall stop looking
as they pattern their wild will each night
across an inchoate sky, but I must see them with a different awe.
If I trace their flames’ ascending and descending –
relationships and correspondences –
then I deny what they have just revealed.
The sum of their oppositions, juxtapositions, led me to the end of all sums:
a long journey, cold, dark and uncertain,
toward the ultimate equation.
How can I understand? If I turn back from this,
compelled to seek all answers in the stars,
then this – Who – they have led me to
is not the One they said: they will have lied.

No stars are liars!
My life on their truth!
If they had lied about this
I could never trust their power again.

But I believe they showed the truth,
truth breathing,
truth Whom I have touched with my own hands,
worshipped with my gifts.
If I have bowed, made
obeisance to this final arithmetic,
I cannot ask the future from the stars without betraying
the One whom they have led me to.

It will be hard not ask, just once again,
see by mathematical forecast where he will grow,
where go, what kingdom conquer, what crown wear.
But would it not be going beyond truth
(the obscene reduction ad absurdum)
to lose my faith in truth once, and once for all
revealed in the full dayspring of the sun?

I cannot go back to night.
O Truth, O small and unexpected thing,
You have taken so much from me.
How can I bear wisdom’s pain?
But I have been shown: and I have seen.

Yes. I shall miss the stars.

This is mercy – even when it seems harsh: “I cannot go back to night.” We cannot love what leads us to Jesus more than we love Jesus, any more than the Magi could love the stars that led their discovery more than the discovery itself. Who can cling to stars when they have seen the Daystar enfleshed? The stars didn’t lie; but the stars became insufficient. The kaleidoscope simply shifted, putting all their wisdom at the mercy of revelation.

You and I cannot go back to night, even if we love the minute adjustment of telescopes, the star charts, the constellations. Mercy will not let us. This is Epiphany: light to the Gentiles, God’s mercy in vivid form, appearing with ruthlessly consistent love.

Featured image courtesy Biswarup Ganguly.

Resilient Prayer in Escalating Crisis: Video

Are you a leader facing escalating crises on multiple fronts? Enjoy this video from Managing Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner, on resilient prayer for leaders juggling the unexpected, and recognizing signals of growing spiritual resilience. Excerpt below.

Excerpt: “The Holy Spirit not only shapes what you want or what you pray for, but how you pray in the midst of crisis, because you cannot pray for what you do not see. This is why resilient prayer begins with deliberately mindfully honing awareness. As you acknowledge your human propensity for blind spots, it allows your spirit to be sensitive to what you simply haven’t been aware of.

So when you pray from awareness of the seen and unseen, awareness of the immediate vs the eternal, the global and not just local, aware of the limits of your own control and autonomy – then you are inviting God to break into the present calamity in ways that you can’t foresee or predict. You are inviting God to put a burden on your hearts for the needs around you that the Holy Spirit helps you discern. You are inviting God to take your availability and propel it into the needs of this world, whether locally or globally, in small or in major steps.

When this honed awareness provides the basis and architecture of prayer, what will you find? Spiritual resilience that is steadfast in crisis – personal crisis, national crisis, global crisis; it may not feel like you are resilient; you may not feel confident.

So what are some signals that you are growing in spiritual resilience, whether you feel strong or resilient, or not? First, if you find that God is using you in ways you didn’t expect, that is a signal that you are praying with honed awareness. It is a signal that that awareness is structuring how you pray, and that how you pray – no matter what your circumstances – is demonstrating growth in spiritual resilience.

What you wrote off or thought nothing of, you now discover yielding unexpected good things. Maybe someone comments, or says, “you have no idea how much I needed to hear that.” Maybe what you underestimated instead blossoms and flourishes. If you find that God is using you in ways you didn’t anticipate, pay attention; you are praying with honed awareness, and how you pray is demonstrating growth in spiritual resilience – because you were faithful to small moments that seemed insignificant.”

The Lord Who Heals You: Jehovah Rophe

This spring as the Coronavirus pandemic gained momentum, my husband and I got ready to start a construction project at our house. We found a contractor, met with him a couple of times to talk about the plan – we even had masking tape lines on the floor where a new wall would go.  Supplies were scheduled to arrive on a Friday and work would begin on that Saturday. And then, the stay-at-home order went out. I started having second thoughts about the timeline.  Was it a good idea to start a construction project in the middle of a pandemic? Would we or the contractor get sick? Would we be able to buy the supplies we needed throughout the project?

Really, my core concern wasn’t whether we could start, but whether we’d be able to finish. The only thing worse than a construction project is a half-done, stalled construction project.

Any half-done project is frustrating. It’s messy, unusable, a constant reminder that there’s more work waiting. Usually, you can’t see a half-done, stalled project with any satisfaction. Instead, it’s a reminder that there’s more work to do – every time you walk past it.  We put construction on hold.

Thinking about the construction dilemma makes me acknowledge that what I won’t tolerate in my home, I often tolerate in myself. I am not a finished project.  I am still being formed in the image of Christ. My wounds are still being healed. My relationship with God has a lot of room to grow and deepen. All of that is okay. Those things will be “under construction” until I am done with my earthly life.

The problem is that – at times – I let those projects stall. There have been times I settle for them when they’re stalled out, half-way done, no new progress made for stretches at a time. That’s the problem.

But we love and serve a God who finishes projects. God completes what he starts. God doesn’t just want to save us – to rescue us and then leave us as we were. God wants to bring us into the safety of communion with him and then begin the work of restoration – of healing. We love and serve Jehovah Rophe – the God who heals.

The Lord is Healer

Early in the biblical story, God introduces himself to his people as healer. In Exodus, God refers to himself as Jehovah RopheThe Lord Who Heals You.  Some of the names of God were given to him by people as they had significant experiences with the Almighty. Like Hagar who called God Jehovah RoiThe God Who Sees Me. But in this case, God doesn’t wait for someone to notice through experience; instead, God announces it.

Look with me at Exodus 15:22-26:

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

A few days before this event at Marah, God orchestrated a mass exodus of his people out of slavery – out from under Egyptian control – and into freedom.  They were free – but in many ways, they were still dragging their broken chains with them. They bore damage done by generations of enslavement. They had been mistreated, abused, threatened, their babies killed, their lives and dignity stolen.  They were officially free – but not yet in a way to live the abundant life that God promised them. They needed a God who heals.

If you read those early moments of their exodus, you know that healing didn’t happen overnight for them. This event at Marah was the first of many events orchestrated by God to heal. Look at the passage again.  Do you notice the signs that God’s people needed healing? They panicked when faced with adversity; their resilience was tapped out from repeated trauma. We can’t underestimate their suffering here, from our well-hydrated, air-conditioned, padded seats.  This was a tough spot: three days walking in the desert without water means significant suffering. In their group are babies and children, elderly people, thirsty animals.  And then, to their suffering, they add disappointment: the water they do find is undrinkable.

Their response to the situation shows that they need not only water, but the deep, inner freedom of healing. They panicked, fight or flight kicking in: “What are we going to drink?” And they grumbled not to Moses but against him; under pressure, this traumatized group of people turned on Moses.

Moses is dealing with the same situation. He is thirsty too; and he is responsible for leading this group.  But Moses does something helpful: he cries out to the Lord.  Healing had already begun in this leader. God had been working Moses’ healing during his time in Midian.  He knows to bring his problems to God. Sometimes, people grumble when they need a God who heals; but people cry out to God when they’ve begun the process of healing.

Moses cries out and God responds. God tells Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water; instantly, the water is turned from bitter to sweet.  On the surface, this is a practical move to provide desperately needed water. In another way, it was like a parable acted out: God’s kind and gentle way of saying, “Hey, Israelites, do you see yourselves a little in this bitter water? Here’s good news – I am a God who heals things. Would you like to be healed?”

God could have just yelled, “Stop being bitter!” Instead, God patiently introduces himself to this people as The God Who Heals. God heals the diseased water as a demonstration of his goodness and his healing power. Then God asks: “Will you let me heal you?”

If you read the rest of Exodus, you’ll see that the people didn’t initially get God’s deeper purpose in this miracle. They were distracted by their thirst and the water; they moved onto the next thing. Once the crisis was over, they forgot to circle back and confront their own bitterness. They continued in survival mode.

Is it tempting to stand back and admire God who heals, but to neglect allowing God to begin the healing process in you? It’s one thing to know that God can heal; it’s another thing to experience God as the One who heals you. Knowing about God only gets you so far. You and I need to experience God – not just once but many times.

God didn’t want the Israelites to be a half-way done, stalled construction project. God doesn’t want to leave you half-done and stalled out, either.

God has the power to change the very essence of something. How long had that water been bitter? Long enough for the locals to name the spot Marah – which means bitter. That’s how deep the bitterness ran.

How long had the Israelites tasted bitter suffering? For generations. As long as they could remember. But the God who heals can turn what is into what can be.  How long have you been bitter, or sad, or angry, or shamed? Do you have ways of thinking and responding that are so deep you don’t even recognize them as broken? What has become your normal?

Maybe you’ve been angry or sad or hurt or sick for a long time – maybe for as long as you can remember. God’s not put off by that. The God who heals can change the very essence of who we are. Just like God changed water from bitter – so diseased that people dying of thirst couldn’t drink it – to sweet – a life-giving joy to experience.

The water was healed much more quickly than the Israelites were; it takes time to earn trust. So God began a process of healing with the Israelites – a 40-year process.  The Israelites didn’t have a lot of patience for the process; do any of us? Do you expect an instant of salvation to resolve what can take the process of sanctification a lifetime?  Sometimes if we get frustrated with the process, we opt out.

Let Yourself Be Healed

Sometimes healing happens suddenly. I know of physical healing that’s happened in a moment. You may know someone God has instantaneously healed of emotional wounds.  But other times, healing happens in the slow lane. That was certainly the Israelites story. God healed them in stages. 

You won’t just see this in the Old Testament, you can see it in the New Testament as well. Think about the disciples’ three-year-long journey with Jesus. There’s an interesting account of healing found in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida. Some peoplebrought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the manlooked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesuslaid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Jesus heals this man, but in a way that is unique from every healing story in the Gospels. For some reason, Jesus doesn’t heal him instantly like he did all the others. It’s certainly not because he couldn’t. Jesus healed people left and right. It’s not because the man lacked faith for full healing: Jesus raised the dead man Lazarus back to life, and dead people don’t have any faith.

I don’t know why Jesus took two turns at healing this guy, but I’m glad he did. It gives me hope.  For me, healing has come in stages. I don’t think I’m alone. So this story gives my story context – a way of understanding why something can take so long.  What can we learn about the healing journey?

I love these stories of Jesus interacting with people one-on-one. They are each unique and personal.  The blind man’s friends want him to be healed; they must have heard about or seen Jesus heal people. So they bring the man to Jesus and beg for healing for their friend. 

Jesus offers his hand to the man and leads him to a quiet spot where they can speak privately. Then – Jesus spits on the man’s eyes, touches him, and asks, “do you see anything?”

Each of us might handle being in the blind man’s shoes differently; I think I would have felt some performance pressure to be a success story.  Everyone else had been healed instantly. Why wasn’t I? But the way Jesus asks the question, “Do you see anything?” sets up the man to answer honestly.  “Well…I see what must be people, but they kind of look like trees…”

From this brave man’s example, I learn to be honest about where I am in my healing journey: honest with myself, with God, and with others. We all have areas that are works in progress. We all see more than we used to, but not everything clearly yet. Can we admit that? 

Sometimes in faith communities there’s an expectation that because we go to church or believe in Christ that we are done – healed – good to go.  We struggle to make room for the process of healing.

This man honestly reported exactly what he was experiencing. Jesus didn’t blame him, question his faith or intelligence, yell at him, or get frustrated and quit.  Instead, the man’s honesty led to more healing. This man didn’t settle for half-a-healing. Jesus stood right there – present, kind, patient, through the whole process. Not an eye roll. Not a sign of irritation or frustration.

And the man didn’t walk away, either. He could have said, “well, people looking like trees is better than nothing,” and settled for that. He could have decided he wasn’t up for being smeared with saliva again. Instead, he spoke honestly with Jesus, and waited while the healing continued. Jesus did all the work. All the man had to do was stay present.  And just like God transformed the water from bitter to sweet, God transformed a blind man into someone who could see clearly.  Polar opposites: bitter to sweet, blind to 20/20 vision. Jehovah Rophe: The Lord Who Heals You.

At times, I have settled for half-a-healing; I have settled for being healed enough to hold it together in public – but falling apart inside. I have settled for seeing through a fog, when I could have been seeing clearly. Does that sound like you?

Why do we do this?  Because sometimes, healing hurts. Ask anyone who has gone through cancer treatments.  The God Who Heals does the work; but we have to submit to it, and it’s hard. If you get into a hard part, you may think you must be doing it wrong. But if it’s hard – you are probably doing it right.  Healing requires us to name our baggage, wounds, hurt, or trauma, and allow God to work there – in a place that’s sometimes quite painful, that we’d rather ignore or hide or protect.

None of us are completed projects. That’s not the problem. The problem is when you begin to tolerate a constant state of disruptive “good enough.” If you let the healing process stall out and come to a standstill. If you know deep down you’re still only seeing shadows but you don’t want to admit it.

Today, do you know God as Jehovah Rophe – The Lord Who Heals You?

Where are you on your healing journey?

Everyone in this world needs healing of some kind. I’m not surprised when you tell me you have baggage. I trust that you will not be surprised when I’m honest about ways in which God is still healing me.

God doesn’t ever just heal us for our own sake, but also for the sake of others. Who are the others in your life who will be impacted when you allow God to work healing in your life?  Your children, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors?  In the hard moments, if  you are tempted to walk away half-done, make a list of their names. What difference will it make in their lives when you patiently stick with the process?

It is not self-centered to choose to search for healing. It’s so that you can come out on the other side more whole and healthy. It’s as if God is throwing pieces of wood into the water, saying, “Come on! Taste the water now. I can do this for you, too.”

Where are you on your healing journey? Is the construction in process; has it come to a standstill? Have you settled for blurry, good-enough vision? Do you hear God’s patient invitation to stick with it? Wherever you are, consider some of these next steps:

  1. Ask for help. You might not even know how to frame the question or issue. “Will you help me?” might be all you can say. That’s a perfectly fine place to start.
  2. Reach out. Maybe you know right away what needs healing and you’re ready to engage with God. Reach out to someone and let them walk with you – a pastor, a small group leader, a district confidant, a spiritual director, a trusted friend.
  3.  Tell your story to someone. Sometimes our healing lies in bringing things to the surface that we’ve ignored until we’ve almost forgotten. Tell your story to someone and notice what still hurts. That might be an area God wants to bring wholeness and restoration.
  4. Seek out professional help. Spiritual healing does not happen apart from emotional healing. God uses professional therapists, counselors, addiction specialists and many others to heal.

What is your next step? God is so patient with us. Will you be patient and let God change the essence of your life? God remains Jehovah Rophe: The Lord Who Heals You. God can take your life from:

bitter to sweet

sadness to joy

fear to trust

So how does the water taste to you today? What is it that’s blurry? What can you see?

Doctors & Dying: Caring for Caretakers

In the tug of prolonged strain, physicians, like their patients, are vulnerable. Some corners of the United States remain relatively quiet and unaffected by outbreaks of the coronavirus, Covid-19. In these areas, extra sanitizer, virtual appointments, and doctors’ office face coverings are the cue that something is happening elsewhere. But in other regions, despite the summer months, health care systems are overwhelmed; at the time of writing, Texas, Arizona, and Florida are being pummeled by significant spikes. For some cities, hospitalists have seen a steady stream of critical patients for months.

For doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, anesthesiologists – anyone who spends hours in personal protective gear, anyone who spends months caring for critical and dying patients – several dynamics are changing the way in which they encounter death. This is significant for clergy caring for burned-out parishioners; it is significant for laypeople who approach their career in medicine as a vocation; and it is significant for hospice chaplains and workers, and for hospital chaplains.

One journalist, writing on the challenges of administering last rites during a pandemic, observed:

“The Coronavirus has led the United States to the valley of the shadow of death. In just three months, a microscopic particle has laid bare human mortality. The entire nation has worked to avoid death, shutting down cities, masking faces in the streets, and isolating the dying from their loved ones in their final hours. And yet, more than 100,000 people have died, and often, died alone.

Many rituals, a guide through life’s most sacred moments, have been impossible. Children said final goodbyes to dying parents through windows or on FaceTime, if they bid farewell at all. Only rarely have religious leaders been allowed into hospitals and nursing homes. Families attend funerals on Zoom.

The country is facing a deeply personal crisis of spirit, not only of health or economics. A virus has forced a reckoning with the most intimate questions we have, questions not only about how we live, but also about how we die. About what we can control, and what we cannot. About how to name human dignity, despair and hope. And especially about how to make meaning of our final hours on this earth.

‘This major disaster is going to change our relationship to death; I’m not exactly sure how, but I am certain it will,’ Shannon Lee Dawdy, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, said. A century ago, priests were ‘answering sick calls night and day,’ one Catholic newspaper reported at the time. Now nurses and doctors, not spiritual leaders or families, are most likely to be death’s witnesses.”

In cities like Boston, priests occasionally have been allowed special clearance to administer last rites in personal protective equipment. During the early coronavirus outbreak in Italy, priests were given some freedom within pandemic protocol to visit the dying; some who offered spiritual care to coronavirus victims themselves died of it.

Meanwhile, American hospital chaplains accustomed to offering comfort through personal presence have struggled to serve patients and family members through the distance of a device screen. Last spring, many hospitals put restrictions on chaplain presence due to shortage of personal protection equipment. Other chaplains are present in hospitals and able to respond to a request for their presence if they don protective gear and follow protocol. Distanced or present in mask and scrubs, chaplains are offering support not only to patients and family members but to exhausted health care workers. One journalist writing on the changes in hospital chaplaincy noted:

“The infectious nature of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has changed everyone’s jobs in healthcare, including chaplains. The obvious shift is the inability to physically visit patients in hospitals to be a resource to them and their families.

The subtler changes are the extent of tending to those who tend to the ill. It’s watching out for what [chaplain David] Carl describes as ‘compassion fatigue and burnout’ among healthcare workers. Because nothing is routine now in healthcare.”

One chaplain noted how fatalities took a toll on New York City doctors during the tragic spike in the city: “How do I help a nurse who is new to nursing and has walked into all this death and it’s nothing that she had ever imagined? …This is very hard because this is personal. No patient is a number. And this is a very good hospital. Our patients usually live. And to have so many of our patients not making it — it’s even hard on the seasoned doctors.”

Even experienced chaplains, who have developed routines and habitual pressure valves to let off steam from regular engagement with grief, aren’t immune from the additional strain of providing care during a pandemic. As one journalist observes, “For most hospital workers, as for so many others around the country and the world, the last couple of months have been something like a prolonged trauma. ‘We’re all living right on the cusp, in this buzzing, anxious place’ [says Reverend Kate Perry]. She’s seen hospital workers who are typically reserved, now living on the edge of panic. ‘Every patient, family, and staff is all living with the same emotions,’ she says. ‘They feel anxious and helpless and this deep sadness. And then there’s this anger.'”

Usually, hospice workers provide robust, sensitive end-of-life care for dying people, from the elderly to cancer patients to a variety of patients; occasionally, patients rally and make a partial recovery, even able to leave hospice care. Whatever the outcome, hospice caregivers and facilities excel in quietly tending to the physical needs of the dying and the emotional needs of their family members, shepherding them through the process of dying, death, and loss, answering mundane questions, being present in grief.

But with Covid-19 patients, isolation is often required to contain further spread. For some patients, their last moment to speak is right before they are sedated and placed on a ventilator, so the good-bye may come weeks before the moment of possible death. Not only that, often critical Covid patients take a quick turn for the worse, so that even if one family member is allowed to come to the hospital, they may or may not make it in time. The loss of a typical progression of dying, the loss of hospice or chaplain bedside presence, these are also fatalities of this disease. Not only are family members unmoored and chaplains frustrated at a distance, but in strained, crowded Covid units, at times doctors find themselves attempting to calm patients terrified of being intubated and dying; and as chaplains noted above, even seasoned hospitalists have been caught off guard by the sheer number of fatalities during the worst spikes.

Just like testing and treatment protocol are becoming more familiar and hopefully more efficient, as time progresses, chaplains and hospice workers will find new means of offering care to the dying. Last spring, hospice workers creatively tackled obstacles to meaningful connection in a variety of ways. Hopefully, curves will flatten in Miami, in Houston, in Tucson, relieving pressure on overtaxed hospitals and exhausted doctors; hopefully, spikes will be prevented in other states on the edge of exponential growth.

In the meantime, health care workers on the front lines of Covid outbreaks face unprecedented losses, often without the physical presence of chaplains or hospice workers to bear the brunt of witnessing death. What might be some starting places for clergy and chaplains spiritually caring for medical caretakers?

Hospice resources are extremely valuable for everyone – pastors, laypeople, and those working in medicine. If exhausted doctors are feeling the absence of hospice workers, there are still bite-sized, helpful hospice resources that can help provide a new lens with which to approach dying patients – even in unbelievably hectic times. For example, often in-home hospice nurses have short pamphlets they give to family members. While medical professionals are familiar with the basic biology of the dying process, hospice resources also frame the process of letting go and grieving. For instance, while this printable resource is primarily for families of terminally ill people, a portion of the caregivers section is relevant to frustrated specialists encountering critical patients suffering from a little-understood disease, Covid-19, still being researched: “Caregivers are often overwhelmed by the intensity and mixture of emotions they feel. These may include: Fear that you do not know the right thing to do and that you are failing as a caregiver mixed with moments of realization that you are doing the best you can and amazement that you can do as much as you are doing.” These kinds of insights can help reinforce the reality that family caregivers and doctors alike sometimes experience very similar dynamics. In other words: this response is not unusual; it is common; you are not alone. In The Family Handbook of Hospice Care, the physical toll of grief is named: “Grief can take a toll on you physically. You may lose interest or gain interest in food. You may lose weight. You may have intense dreams or disturbing sleep patterns—if you can sleep at all. You may be extremely restless, unable to concentrate or relax. Furthermore, grief can hurt: You might feel a knot in your stomach, a tightness in your throat, or a heaviness in your chest. Often grief requires more energy than you would need to chop wood. You may require lots of rest to maintain your health.” In areas hit by a surge of infections, many ICU nurses and specialists are simply – grieving; or, they would be if they had the energy to do so. Grief can be delayed, but it will come out in some form or another eventually.

Be ready for both the curve and the flattening. In the middle of a huge spike of positive cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, few ICU nurses will have time or energy to read up on a theology of death and dying, or the problem of theodicy – how suffering can exist if there is an all-powerful, all-good God. During a crisis, there’s barely energy left over just to do laundry. The waxing and waning of relative normalcy vs an explosion of emergency can also be captured in Ignatius’ approach to seasons of life as “consolation and desolation.” If you’re a chaplain or physician in the midst of relative normalcy (or “consolation”), now is a moment to explore resources and shore up mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Now is the time to call up a pastor or professor friend and talk through hard questions; now is the time to read God on Mute. However, for doctors numb with exhaustion, forcing themselves through rote motion each day (“desolation”), you probably simply need to eat, sleep, sweat, and laugh daily. Though Ignatius was addressing Christians, some of his advice would be picked up later by recovery groups as well: in a time of desolation, followers of Christ should practice the habit of recalling God’s faithfulness in prior times of desolation; resist the temptation to see suffering as pointless; resist desolation through meditation and prayer; avoid making big decisions, “because desolation is the time of the lie—it’s not the time for sober thinking. That is, in our disheartened state, we’re more prone to be deceived”; pay attention to the spiritual insights found during desolation; and confidently look for the quick return of a season of consolation.” It can be challenging to see the possibility of a season different from whatever you’re in now; but even identifying these rhythms can encourage the exhausted or motivate the distracted.

Develop a Personal Ritual; Don’t Feel Ashamed of PTSD

Rituals help order chaos; they are, as someone once described, a kind of “scaffolding” exterior to our own emotions. Rituals also pause activity out of deference to something bigger. In the absence of chaplains, medical workers of any or no faith may find a swift motion, gesture, or pause helpful in marking the passing of a patient. A few seconds holding their hand, silently offering a quick thanks for their life, or even folding their blanket before it is taken to laundry can help acknowledge loss of life before moving on to the next pressing need.

After several successive losses in my own life, I had simple black silicone bands debossed subtly with the words I’m Grieving. On especially hard days, I wore one. The simple visual cue often gave family members quick insight into a mood, and sometimes it opened up meaningful conversations with strangers. I mailed some to others going through season of grief. Decades after the common use of black mourning armbands to signal grieving in public, the simple wristbands were a good modern substitute. In times of grief and loss, tangible items are valuable in marking things that are difficult to verbalize and express.

Tangible touchstones are also helpful for anyone with PTSD. Doctors, clergy, military medics, chaplains, nurses – people in all these professions sometimes come away with post-traumatic stress. Panic attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, obsessive habits – none of these experiences are shameful; none of them indicate a lack of faith or a lack of expertise or a lack of professionalism. Certainly, none of these experiences or others indicate a lack of strength. They simply mean we are all finite, neurological creatures.

It seems likely that we have quite a ways to go in order to flatten curves, wait for vaccine production, understand the long-term health impact of this virus, and discover whether or not yearly vaccines, as with influenza, are necessary. Would you describe your days as being in a time of consolation or a time of desolation? Are you finding a need for ritual – for scaffolding outside of yourself? Take it gently. Remember – for now is not forever. And recall the words on how, “even in the darkest places, joy and goodness can be found” from International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen: “Joy is the oxygen…”


Physicians Start Hotline for Doctors Struggling with Mental Health

Physician Support Line: For Doctors Navigating Covid-19

A Caregiver’s Guide to the Dying Process: The Hospice Foundation of America

When Death Enters Your Life: A Grief Pamphlet for People in Prisons or Jails

Spanish Language Resources: from the Hospice Foundation of America

For American Healthcare Workers Coping with Pandemic Stress: from the CDC

For Emergency Responders Coping with Pandemic Stress: from the CDC

James Petticrew ~ Praying for Compassion Collisions

As a Scot, I am sort of unique.  I don’t drink whiskey and have never played a round of golf. However, my golf-obsessed friends tell me that there is such a thing as a mulligan: the chance to take a shot again because you didn’t like the first one. So I wonder: who do we ask for a mulligan for 2020? I don’t know about you, but I would really like a do-over of this year.

Here in Switzerland, over the last few months of our COVID lockdown, I’ve found myself constantly saying things to myself like, “I wasn’t trained for this,” “I have never ministered like this before,” “people have never had to handle stuff like this before,” “how will they cope?” and “how on earth can I respond to that?”   

As if COVID hasn’t been difficult enough for our churches to handle and navigate, the death of George Floyd exposed racism to still be a malignant and yet callously mundane force in many cultures worldwide. Social media exploded with reactions, from righteous indignation, to a great deal of malicious misinformation, to some not-so-righteous responses from people who feel under attack (or let’s face it, who are just unrepentant racists in denial). A couple of U.S. pastors told me privately that they were glad that their churches have been on lockdown and not meeting face to face – because the face to face interaction most likely to happen between some congregants was angry confrontation. Months of lockdown anxiety and politically potent issues have made some of our congregations powder kegs of pent-up frustration and barely concealed anger.

So how do we respond to all that we have gone through and all we are facing right now in our churches and cultures?

How should we respond to all the hurts, anxiety, and anger with which people are emerging from lockdown?  

What should be our response as disciples of Jesus? Because if we are not responding first and foremost as disciples, we are in trouble, and heading for more.

Now I know we can be too eisegetical when it comes to Jesus’ culture – reading our contemporary situation back into his. Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the culture in which Jesus ministered was riven with sectarian divisiveness and filled with enormous amounts of real and pressing human need. It struck me recently while reading the Gospels that Jesus was often confronted by angry people and needy people. What Jesus faced in Judea 2,000 years ago must have felt somewhat like 2020 does to us in many ways. (Though I am sure Jesus is happy to be spared “Zoom fatigue” and the frustrations of low bandwidth.)

All of this fills my mind and prayers as lockdown in Switzerland eases and people begin to meet again, with appropriate masks and social distance.  Recently, a song and a text came together in Holy Spirit serendipity, giving my answer on how I should respond as a disciple, and how we as a church should respond as a community. As I hit play on a video incorporated in our online service, I heard the voice of the Spirit through the words of the song: “everyone needs compassion.”

Those who are struggling with the physical, emotional, and relational impact of COVID need compassion. The victims of racism need compassion – and justice. Even racists need our compassion, if we are serious about that enemy-loving stuff that Jesus seems to have been serious about. People with whom I differ on politics need compassion. I need compassion. The politicians who frustrate me and have a talent for pushing my buttons need compassion.

Just in case I hadn’t got the message, God followed up with a verse from the Gospel of Luke. I’ve been preaching a series called “Overflow,” about how God’s character overflows into our lives and then overflows from our lives into the lives of those around us. I chose the texts weeks before, and as I heard the song, that Sunday I was due to preach about overflowing with -compassion. “Show mercy and compassion for others, just as your heavenly Father overflows with mercy and compassion for all.” (Luke 6:36)

In that moment, I could see the message of Luke 6:36. I could see what it meant for myself, for the church I pastor, and may I tentatively suggest, for the whole Church of Jesus Christ at the moment. Faced with everything that is happening to us, in us and around us, we are to be people and communities of indiscriminate, overflowing compassion.

Two words from this verse jump out at me: “just as,” drawing a direct parallel between God’s treatment of me and my posture towards others. Jesus is telling us that God’s compassion needs to be experienced and expressed: experienced by us as his people and expressed to the people around us. Just as our heavenly Father overflows with indiscriminate compassion for all, we are to allow that compassion to overflow without restriction or discrimination to those around us.

 Is there anything that our world needs more right now than people and communities of overflowing, indiscriminate compassion?

I’m now praying for what I’m calling compassion collisions. I am praying that God will fill me, fill us as a church, until we are brimming full of his compassion, and that God would make us bump into people, spilling his compassion all over them through us.

Maybe you would join me in praying for compassion collisions?

What if we pray for Holy Spirit-orchestrated compassion collisions in our families, in our churches, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods? What if God’s antidote for the anger and need swirling around us right now is his compassion administered through us?

Featured image courtesy Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash.