One Incident Commander

My pastor recently started a new sermon series on spiritual disciplines we did not choose. Topics will include persecution and suffering, aging, God’s silence, difficult people, rejection and loneliness. Pastor Brad had planned to talk about aging on Mother’s Day but a couple of things happened during the week that caused him to change his mind. A friend of his passed away and there was yet another school shooting in our community.

At the time of the Columbine High School shooting, my pastor was serving as a chaplain for the county sheriff’s department. He got a call to go to the elementary school to be with the parents who were waiting for their kids. After the Aurora theater shooting, he spent hours in the waiting room and at the bedside of a survivor from our church. About five years ago, there was a school shooting at the high school his daughters attended so again, it hit close to home. Last week, there was a school shooting at the STEM charter school in our community.

I can understand why my pastor had too much on his mind to talk about aging. It is hard enough to deal with the grief of losing a friend. But once again, Brad had to counsel parents who feel sad and helpless about school safety and to try to find something positive and encouraging to say to mothers.

So he spoke about trouble instead.

Jesus did not tell us that life would be easy. No, he said you will have trouble. Trouble comes in many ways. The Greek word thlipsis means pressure, affliction, tribulation, anguish, persecution.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

Timothy wrote that there would be terrible times in the last days. Every time I read this scripture, it strikes me that the last days sound a lot like now. People today are just like Timothy described – self-centered, greedy, brutal.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

2 Timothy 3:1-5

Pastor Brad told us that police have learned a couple of important lessons from Columbine. Too many people tried to take charge at Columbine and the response was not well directed and coordinated. In an active shooter situation, police used to set up a secure perimeter around the building and wait for SWAT to arrive. Now police officers know that there must be one and only one incident commander and it doesn’t have to be the highest ranking person. Now, instead of waiting, the first officer on the scene acts immediately to get to the shooter.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you see how messed up this world is. Jesus wanted us to be prepared for trials and tribulation. But he also wanted us to be at peace. He wanted us to take heart. He was not defeated by this world and he has equipped his followers to be overcomers.

God is the first incident commander. He is with you. Do not be discouraged. Do not be afraid. Put on his armor. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:14-15). In good times and bad times, commit yourself to him and continue to do the right thing.

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

1 Peter 4:19

Breaking down the wall of hostility

Before church on Sunday, my pastor placed a long piece of blue tape down the middle of the sanctuary. When he began his sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22, he pointed out the tape in case we hadn’t noticed it. Those of us on one side of the tape were to imagine that we were God’s chosen people of Israel; the others half were Gentiles, excluded from the Jewish community. The blue tape represented the wall of hostility that once separated Jews and Gentiles.

The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus that as Gentiles, they were excluded from the covenants of the promise, without hope and godless. Jesus reconciled Jews and Gentiles. Because of Jesus, Gentiles are not considered foreigners or strangers to God’s promises. Now all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, may come to God the Father with the Holy Spirit’s help because of what Christ has done for us. We are not lost. We are not without hope.

God made a new covenant with the people of Israel; Jesus made the old one obsolete. Jesus annulled the old system of Jewish laws. Jesus broke down the wall of contempt.

Paul wrote that Christ’s purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two. He made peace between us.

My pastor said that many Christians still think in terms of us versus them, black versus white, liberal versus conservative, Christian versus Muslim. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not the model of the kingdom of God.

Given how divided the United States is and how divided the Church is, I was pleasantly surprised that my pastor specifically mentioned a few of the walls of hostility that exist today, though much more could be said. I was very happy that he said this is not the way of Jesus. God-and-Country Believers need to hear this. Too many Christians forget that people of all nations are children of God. Too many Christians forget that we are all temporary residents of God’s world.

How incredibly timely was this sermon, coming in the midst of a huge, costly debate about building a wall to keep people south of the border from entering the United States. Today the president demands that we spend billions of dollars to build a physical wall to protect Americans from murderers and rapists. But the truth is, he is building a wall of hostility to shut out the brown people he has always despised. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not the model of the kingdom of God.

No matter what happens in the coming days, I take heart in knowing that my brothers and sisters south of the border are loved and welcomed by God. God does not see them as foreigners or illegal aliens. Jesus will break down the walls of hostility and one day a great multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people and language will stand before the Lamb of God (Revelations 7:9-10).

Chains He Shall Break

This Christmas season, I found myself feeling so discouraged about the state of human hearts, mine included, I knew I needed to stop and reflect on my reasons for hope. On Christmas Eve, I went to church and sang carols, then came home and looked up the lyrics to one my favorites: “O Holy Night.” Not only does this song have an interesting history, the lyrics give me much food for reflection.

  1. Long lay the world. These words remind me that the world waited for the Messiah for a long, long time. It was hundreds of years between Old Testament prophesies and the birth of Jesus. Now the world groans waiting for Jesus to return. Sometimes I get impatient waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled and have to remind myself that God’s timing is not mine. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
  2. In sin and error pining. The world is enslaved by sin and longs to be set free. The lonely soul pines for the presence of God. Many people don’t know what they’re missing, they just know something is missing. The world chases money and success and attention and adulation, but in the end, finds an emptiness that this world cannot fill,
  3. He appeared and the soul felt its worth. All who have been saved know that there is no gift more precious than knowing that despite your sinfulness and failings, Jesus loves you. When Jesus appears in your life, the soul feels its worth as a precious child of God, one worth dying for.
  4. A thrill of hope. One of my friends doesn’t like it when people of faith use the word hope. I think she equates hope with wanting something to happen or wanting something to be true. But I see hope as the expectation of something good. Hope is trusting that God’s promises will be fulfilled. The thrill of hope is being uplifted by God’s promises, by the expectation of good things to come.
  5. The weary soul rejoices. The soul becomes weary from its struggles, with too many burdens to carry on its own. Jesus brings comfort, peace, and rest, in all our trials born to be our friend. Which reminds me of another old song, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (James Scriven, 1855). When we are sad, weak and heavy-laden, we can rejoice because he shares our sorrows.
  6. Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.
  7. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother. And in His name all oppression shall cease.O Holy Night‘ was brought to America by John Sullivan Dwight, who especially loved this verse because he was an abolitionist. The song was written in the 1840’s by a French poet, Placide Cappeau. A Jewish composer, Adolphe Adam, wrote the music. The song quickly became popular in France but the French Catholic church didn’t approve of Cappeau and denounced the song as not being in the spirit of religion.

Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel voices. Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born.

A good song has the power to move me emotionally. O Holy Night reminds me to not get so caught up in the worries of this world that I fail to see that God’s light is brightly shining just as it was long ago. It reminds me to be patient with God. He’s doing amazing things in the lives of ordinary people – stories that don’t get the big enticing headlines I see on my news feed. It reminds me that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed. It reminds me that the Good News is still the Good News. The words give rest to my weary soul and fill me with the thrill of hope once again. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

† † † † † † †

O Holy Night!

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees

Oh hear the angel voices

Oh night divine

Oh night when Christ was born

Oh night divine

Oh night divine

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming

With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand

So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming

Here come the wise men from Orient land

The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger

In all our trials born to be our friend

Truly He taught us to love one another

His law is love and His gospel is peace

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother

And in His name all oppression shall cease

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us praise His holy name

Love Will Prevail

Someone posted a 22 minute video of the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. I couldn’t watch more than a couple of minutes of it. It made me sick to my stomach. I know that I’m not alone in being upset about the hatred directed at blacks and Jews. It’s vile and disgusting. As a nation, we should be better than this.

Many people have spoken out about the false equivalency the president made between the behavior and character of white supremacists and that of counter-protesters. He said there was blame on both sides. He said that some of those people were “fine people.” But there is nothing fine or good about people who hate people of another race, religion, sex, or nationality. There is an evil darkness where their hearts should be.

Yesterday, we saw the outrage of a man who has no moral compass. His anger was directed at the people who pushed him to denounce the abhorrent behavior of racists. He showed his true colors. He is a man without morals. His comments shocked many but were absolutely consistent with everything he had already shown himself to be.

Last night, I went to bed distraught about racism, Anti-Semitism and the president’s defiant comments in defense of white supremacists. I prayed for my country. I had a dream that I was at some sort of protest. In my dream, I yelled out, “Jesus will prevail!”

My dreaming self reminded me that even when it seems that wickedness is getting the upper hand, hate will never win. Love is much more powerful than hate. It always has been and always will be.

Love builds others up.

Love consoles.

Love encourages.

Love gives me hope for my country.

Tonight, I pray the prayer of Saint Francis. Lord, in this torn and divided country, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is darkness, let me shine light. Where there is sadness, may I spread joy.

Peace Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.