What Pain Teaches Us

I was listening to The Holy Post Podcast last week when one of the hosts, Skye Jethani, told of a book, The Gift of Pain, written by Phillip Yancy and Paul Brand. Dr. Brand is a world-renowned surgeon who grew up as the son of medical missionaries in India and received his medical training in London during The Blitz in World War II. Much of his work was with leprosy patients in the United States and India.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease (HD), is a medical condition that leads to damage to the nerves. This nerve damage can lead to the inability to feel pain, especially in the patient’s extremities. The loss of feeling is dangerous because HD patients can seriously hurt their feet, legs, arms, and hands and have no idea about the injury without the sensation of pain. Without proper treatment, these injuries can get infected and grow worse. By not feeling pain, HD patients often don’t know about more significant threats to their health.

No one likes it, but pain has a purpose—pain functions as a warning system in our lives. Pain tells us to be physically cautious when our back, ankle, or knees hurt. Chest pain alerts us to an on-coming heart attack. Stomach pains tell us that we ate something that doesn’t agree with us. We feel emotional and mental pain when someone abuses, hurts, or takes advantage of us. Pain tells us that something is wrong.

Pain is part of our lives. In recent weeks, there has been much pain in the world.

  • A white shooter travels 200 miles to stake out a Buffalo grocery store, returning to target and killing ten black people the next day.
  • Last week, an 18-year-old entered a Texas Elementary School and began shooting, killing 19 elementary-age students and two teachers.
  • Over 1 million lives have been lost in America due to the Corona Virus outbreak.
  • In Africa, multiple nations face political upheaval, severe drought conditions, and the effects of the pandemic.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to lead to loss of life and an increased amount of displaced people.

Pain tells us that something is wrong. Pain lets us know that something needs to change. If we ignore or accept pain, it will increase with more significant consequences.

How much pain are we willing to endure when it comes to racial violence in our nation before we act? How much pain will we continue to tolerate before we are ready to discuss reasonable gun laws to protect our schools and communities?

We are quick to God during these tragedies. We need to pray for the families of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX, and the war ravaging Ukraine. Prayer is not passive. It is not something we do at our dinner table or at the foot of our bed alone. To pray is to engage. To pray is to open ourselves to be used by God to be the hands and feet of Christ in our world. To pray is to ask God to use us in the world to bring God’s healing where there is so much pain.

Sisters and Brothers, how much pain are we willing to watch and endure? What will it take for us to “seek the peace of the city” (Jerimiah 29:7)? As we seek to live a life shaped by the life of Christ, let us allow our thoughts and prayers to lead to ministry and action as we allow the Spirit to use as a healing presence in the world.

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The Power Source

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

There are two types of people in the world when your gas gauge is just above “E.” The first is the person who will immediately go to the nearest gas station to fill up. The other is the person who will get in their car and begin their journey believing they have enough gas to get to their destination. Which person are you? What fuels you?

Last week, Pastor Neyda began our new sermon series, “Called,” where we will take a quick run through the book of Acts and see how the Holy Spirit called ordinary people to live as witnesses to their faith. Through the series, our prayer is that each of us might realize our calling and be fueled by the Holy Spirit to pursue it.

In Acts 9, Luke introduces us to Ananias. He is a Jewish disciple of Jesus living in Damascus (present-day Damascus in Syria). Ananias may have been part of the diaspora out of Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8. Ananias has a vision at night where he is told to go to a particular house to seek out a man named Saul. If you know the story, you know that Saul is the one persecuting the believers. He is a dangerous man. Fueled by the Holy Spirit, Ananias goes to Saul and prays for him that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit. That moment led to a transformation as the great persecutor of the believers became the Great Proclaimer of the Gospel- the Apostle Paul.

A life fueled by the Holy Spirit leads to transformation in our own lives and in the lives of those to who we boldly minister. My prayer for Avenue Church is that we would boldly follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I pray that the Holy Spirit will empower our ministries to see real-life change. I pray that Jesus would be glorified in all that we do.

What is fueling your faith today? Who is your power source?

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Seek Jesus, Not Experiences

There is a scene in the Gospel of John that has me reeling this week. In John 11, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. John tells us that many people put their faith in Jesus because of this miracle. When we move to John 12 we read this:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.”

John 12:1-2

Lazarus, freshly raised from the dead, is casually reclining at a dinner party! In verse 9, John tells us that when people heard Jesus was nearby, many came to see Jesus and to see Lazarus “who had been raised from the dead.” What a wild scene that had to be for those involved. Many would have known Lazarus died, attended his funeral, and saw him placed in the grave. Now, Lazarus was throwing a party for Jesus. Lazarus is not the main focus of the story. The focus of the story is on Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead.

We live in a bit of an ADHD world, always looking for the shiny object in life. We want to be entertained at Church. We look for the next big spectacle. Even our news cycles so quickly to try and keep our attention (or to divert our attention). In the story, the spectacle is the presence of Lazarus. People are coming from far and wide to see Lazarus. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see someone who was dead that is now alive? In the midst of everything is Jesus.

How many times do we get caught up in the details, the spectacle, and the busyness of life and miss Jesus? How often do we pursue what we think God wants for our future that we miss out on what God has for us right now?

I believe that the passage encourages Christians to be wary of chasing after experiences, methods, or causes that promise to transform, and instead, we are called to fall at the feet of Jesus and offer him our lives. There is no substitute for knowing Jesus.

We are just a few weeks from our Easter celebration. There will be beautiful flowers, inspiring music, and a message of the hope of Resurrection. In the excitement of the season, let us not miss out on the opportunity to fall and worship at the feet of Jesus. As we come to worship, let us invite others to experience God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ.

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Stop Being a Friendly Church*

I hear stories pretty frequently about people who try to go to a church for the first time. It can be an intimidating experience to walk into a space where you do not know the people, the culture of the church, or the layout. When you are a guest, you will have many questions. Where do I park? What door do I enter through? Do we stand? Kneel? Cross ourselves? Raise our hands in worship? Shout, “Amen!”? Heaven forbid if you sit in “someone else’s seat!”

One of the worst things for a guest is to walk into a worship space and not have anyone speak to them. While guests do not want to be smothered (like a young family in an elderly church) or offered leadership positions immediately (we need people like you!), when we speak to new guests we recognize their value and communicate that they are welcome. To this end, many churches go to great lengths to describe themselves as “friendly” churches. Many of the “friendly churches” are, indeed, friendly. Sadly, some churches believe they are friendly when they are not. The problem with settling to be a “friendly church” is that the friendliness stops when the service ends.

We need to stop seeking to be a friendly church and instead be a church where friendships lead to transformation.

Let me be honest; we need to be friendly on Sunday morning. Anything less will turn guests away from the church in a heartbeat. However, our friendliness must evolve into friendship. People are looking for connections. People are looking for relationships. Even in our age of hyper-connectivity, we are more lonely and disconnected than ever. If people do not find meaningful relationships at church, they will find them at the bar, the bowling alley, or the gym. The church must resist the urge to ‘circle the wagons’ of our relationships to withstand the battering of the world. Instead, we are to open our circle of friends as a way to bring people to Jesus.

As Christians, we are called to build relationships with others. We are called to care for the people around us and to walk with them through whatever life brings their way (and ours!). Let us not settle to be a friendly church, but a church where friendships lead to transformation because people encounter Christ in us.

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A Biblical Case for Masks

On Tuesday, January 11th, a new indoor mask mandate went into effect in Delaware as a result of rising COVID infections in our state. The governor’s mandate exempted churches and houses of worship from the mandate. However, we believe that it is the responsibility of every Christian to care for their neighbors, especially those who are at-risk and vulnerable. With that in mind, I believe that a very strong case can be made that Christians should wear masks during our COVID crisis (and other times as necessary)

This is not meant to be a political decision, but a Biblical one.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul writes about eating food sacrificed to idols. A practicing Jewish person would not eat food sacrificed to an idol. Paul believes that his freedom in Christ permits him to eat this food because an idol is not really a god. But then, Paul writes:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:9

Paul understands that there are still some Christ-followers whose faith will not allow them to eat meat sacrificed to an idol. They see this sort of action as sinful. Seeing Paul eat meat sacrificed to an idol might tempt a person to do something against their conscience. Paul’s freedom to eat this meat could cause a “weaker” person to stumble and sin. Listen to Paul’s solution. He says,

Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:13

Even though Paul believes he has every right to eat meat sacrificed to an idol, he sets aside his freedom and his rights in order to honor his brother/sister who does not believe the same as him! He says he will never eat meat again, just to affirm and protect the conscience of a Christian brother or sister! As Christians, we are called to look out for the well-being of those in our community over our personal rights and freedom.

How does this relate to masks? As Americans, our entire national foundation is personal rights and freedoms. We’ve fought wars to ensure our freedoms. We have the right/freedom to choose not to wear a mask. But as Christians, we are called to set aside our personal rights and freedoms on behalf of those who are vulnerable in our communities. A Christian does not operate out of personal freedom, but out of what is best for the Body- the community we live in through our faith in Christ- the Church.

James, the brother of Jesus, writes in 1:27 that religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Widows and orphans represented the most vulnerable persons in any society in ancient times. To live truly live our faith out means we look after and care for those who are vulnerable. In our present moment, I believe that means the [American] Christian should lay aside their freedom of choosing not to wear a mask to protect those around us who are vulnerable and at risk.

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Standing By the Tent

Photo by Pars Sahin on Unsplash

In Exodus 33:7-14, we read a brief description of the Tent that Moses pitched outside the Israelite camp. This Tent was called The Tent of Meeting. It was where Moses would go to speak with God and learn God’s guidance. This became a ritual for Moses and the people. They would gather outside the Tent when Moses would speak with God (33:8). When the Pillar of Cloud, a symbol or manifestation of God’s presence, appeared over the Tent, the people would worship God.

There is an interesting note in this section of the text. When Moses left the Tent to return to camp, a young man named Joshua remained at the Tent. He would not depart from the Tent. Of course, this is the same Joshua we read about in Exodus who served as a spy to go into the Promise Land. Joshua (and Caleb) told Moses about the riches of the land and how they should go fulfill God’s promise to them even though there were enemies in the land. Joshua succeeded Moses in leading the Israelite nation, years later, into this land flowing with milk and honey.

One has to wonder how Joshua gained such faith in God regarding his leadership. Maybe this text from Exodus 33 provides a clue. Joshua never left the Tent of Meeting where Moses inquired of the LORD. Joshua saw all that Moses did and all Moses encountered at the Tent. I can’t help but imagine Joshua learning how to speak to God because Joshua watched Moses talk with God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” By remaining at the Tent, Joshua put himself in place to be transformed by the presence of God.

Whose Tent are we standing by? Joshua showed perseverance and commitment by standing at the Tent of Meeting. In our walk with God, are we willing to stand, sit, walk, or kneel with the same commitment as Joshua? Will we put ourselves in a place where our lives can be transformed? Will we spend time seeking God’s face and speaking to God as a friend speaks to a friend so that we, too, can encounter the presence of God in our lives?

As we begin the New Year, let us be committed to “standing by the tent” where we can be shaped and formed by the Holy Spirit as we worship, pray, and immerse ourselves in the word of God so that we might be sent out into the mission fields that God is sending us to.

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Does Anybody Know The Meaning of Christmas?

Life offers many questions. When it comes to curiosity in the physical world, we turn to science for answers. When we think about life’s big questions, we turn to philosophy. Religion seeks to answer spiritual questions that impact this life. Faith, in our case Christianity, offers answers to the meaning of life, the problem of sin and evil, and reveals that there is hope beyond this world through Jesus.

A.W. Tozer, an American Pastor, and Theologian writes

“It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas and so few stop to inquire into its meaning, but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of great import. The same man who will check his tires and consult his road map with utmost care before starting on a journey may travel for a lifetime on the way that knows no return and never once pauses to ask whether or not he is headed in the right direction.”

I think that Tozer brings up a great point. How much time do we spend discussing trivial matters that have little impact on our lives? Whether it’s sports (my favorite diversion), politics, or social media, we spend hours every week (day?) on these matters. A study in 2020 showed that the average social media user spends 2 hours and 33 minutes on the six major social media platforms every day! While there can be some good things that come from social media, we can agree that most of it is negative. We have magnified the trivial while ignoring matters of greater importance.

This Christmas, we will spend much time decorating, hanging lights, shopping for presents, baking cookies, traveling to see family and friends, putting up a tree, and going to parties. At what point do we stop and consider the meaning of Christmas? Where do we find time to abide with Christ- God in flesh- who has come to abide in us?

Christmas is more than wrapping paper, gifts, cookies, or lights. It is pretty straightforward. God has come to earth in human form to gather humanity to God. St. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation writes, “God became man that we might become God.” We do not become God, but when we are forgiven and redeemed, God calls us to live as one with God. At Christmas, we must consider the importance of God coming to earth to save humanity as it reflects our value and worth in the eyes of God.

Consider this another way. In the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie is depressed about the holiday’s commercialization. His friend, Lucy, asks him to direct a Christmas pageant. Directing a play is no help for Charlie’s mood. As Lucy and the others mock Charlie’s Christmas tree, he asks, “Does anybody know what Christmas is about?” You know how it ends. Linus takes center stage and proclaims:

Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

With that, Linus declares, “That is what Christmas is all about.”

This Christmas, let us spend a little less time on things that are trivial and spend time in prayer and contemplation about the meaning of Christmas- and how God invites us to live because of the Good News of the Christmas story!

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Walking in the Darkness

The other day I was up until midnight, only to discover that it was only 6:00 p.m. I don’t like how the darkness takes over at such an early time. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the season of Advent takes place during the darkest time of the year. While there is a lot of excitement as Christmas approaches, this time of darkness is representative of the darkness we encounter in the world. During Advent, we acknowledge that we are “people walking in darkness.” Just as the darkness of December is real right now, the darkness we experience in our lives and the world is just as tangible.

The time between the Prophets in the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus is called the inter-testimonial period. This time was a 400-year period where there were no recorded prophets. The people did not hear the Word of God. God was silent. The Temple, the center of their community life and faith, was destroyed. Israel went from captivity in Babylon and occupation by the Persians and Romans. The nation lived in sin and had turned their collective back on God. Darkness filled the land.

Advent is a time when we recognize that there are times when God chooses to be silent and other times when our sin prevents us from hearing God’s voice. In these moments of darkness, we can feel disoriented and alone. Advent is a reminder that Jesus walks with us in the darkness and the silence.

As the darkness gets longer while the days get shorter, let us cling to the promises of God, that God will “never leave us or forsake us.” God is with us no matter how deep the darkness we encounter.

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Identifying Christian Nationalism

This week, I am preaching on Hebrews 12:1-2 for All Saints Sunday. In the text, the author reminds the reader that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” and that we should look to Jesus who is the “author and perfector of our faith.” While not part of my sermon, this got me thinking about Christian Nationalism.

What is Christian Nationalism? It is

“the “belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation.”

Paul D. Miller (What is Christian Nationalism)

Christian Nationalism is not the same as patriotism, according to Miller. Patriotism is the love of country. Christian Nationalism seeks to define our country as a Christian nation- and that Christians have a special place within the framework of our nation.

This was easily spotted back at the Republican National Convention back in 2020. Vice President Mike Pence, a self-described Christian, quoted the passage I am preaching from in Hebrews.

Did you catch that? Hebrews 12:2 says

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set out before us, Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

Pence says,

“Let us run the race marked out for us; let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory…”

Pence leverages the Scriptures for political purposes. He replaces “Jesus,” and tells viewers to look to “Old Glory.” This is a pretty straightforward instance of Christian Nationalism contained in a speech.

The Democrats also know how to warp scripture for political leverage. In August of 2021 following a suicide attack in Kabul that killed several Marines and Afghan citizens, President Joe Biden attempts to communicate that the Marines know the dangers they face in their call to serve the country. Biden quotes Isaiah 6, “Here am I! Send me!” to describe Marine’s willingness to go and serve where called.

If you’re unfamiliar with Isaiah 6, it is the text of God calling Isaiah to go to the people and call them to repentance. Isaiah is calling them back to God. There is nothing regarding the military in the text. This is a gross misinterpretation and misapplication of the text for political purposes.

There is a great danger when we use Scripture out of context to defend, describe, or inspire a nation or army. There is an even greater danger when Scripture, out of context, is used to describe or define an ideology. The Bible never mentions America. America is not, somehow, a new Israel (as I heard occasionally growing up), and our military is not God’s army. Using Scripture in this way enables us to justify the treatment of those not like us as “enemies of God” since they are enemies of our country.

As Christians who are American, let us seek to read and understand the Bible in its own context. It is not an American text. Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, let us look to this very same Jesus (and not at Old Glory) who is the author and perfector of our faith.

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When The Saints Go Marching In

I love getting to professional baseball games early to watch batting practice and to see these incredible athletes practice their craft. As someone who played baseball through college, it is exciting to see the work that these athletes put in on a daily basis. They have built their lives around training, preparing, and playing baseball. Most ballplayers have careers that are forgotten about. Some players become regulars, starters, and All-Stars over the course of their careers. I know that my coach (one of which was my dad) would encourage me to watch how baseball players prepare, play, and handle adversity in order to learn how to play the game better.

This Sunday is All Saints Sunday, where we remember those saints who have had their triumphal entry into God’s presence over the last year. In the New Testament, a saint simply refers to all Christians across all time. In the book of Hebrews, the author talks about how we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” and encourages us to watch them in order to learn how to persevere in our faith and life. We are called to watch the saints/witnesses are their lives testify to the reality of Jesus in their lives.

I’m always taken aback when I look at the list of saints from our church on All Saints Sunday because their lives have so much to offer us. Even in death, they serve as witnesses to the faithfulness of God. They encourage us to walk faithfully with Jesus and with one another. These witnesses show us that we, too, can walk with Jesus each day. The real question is, who are we watching?

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