How to respond to a really bad week

I had a couple of people tell me that our Sunday School conversation from this past Sunday was meaningful for them, and we had a pretty small group, so I thought I’d share sort of a summary of at least what I said…hopefully it resonates with others.

Last week started off with a report from an outside group that the Southern Baptist Convention had covered up thousands of cases of sexual abuse, many against children and youth, by Baptist ministers over the last several decades…so here’s me being totally and maybe brutally honest – it made me question my decision/calling to be in Youth Ministry. Ultimately, I know this is where I’m supposed to be and this is the work I’m called to do, but I feel like it’s such a black mark on ministry in general when some of the people responsible for the spiritual care of others abuse their position for such despicable acts, and others cover it up or ignore it to retain their own positions of power and influence.

Then the week got worse as the news from Uvalde, Texas started coming out and seemed to get worse by the minute, hour and day. 21 lives taken, 19 of whom were elementary school students and the other two their teachers…so horrific and heartbreaking.

So I spent most of last week somewhere between sad/heartbroken and angry/furious…maybe you teenagers are oblivious to the news, especially the Baptist stuff…but I have a feeling most of you parents are aware of that news, and especially of the school shooting news which is fairly unavoidable.

So how are we supposed to respond to news that angers us, news that breaks our hearts?

I jotted down four ways that I think are a good start, but also, I think God can handle lots of different reactions so this of course isn’t some kind of concrete solution to anything.

First, we trust God in the midst of tragedy. This may be one of the hardest things to do. I think of the story of Job in the Old Testament…in the middle of Job losing everything, God gives a big long speech in which God basically tells Job “I’m God…you’re not.” Seems a harsh response, but it’s a good reminder that even when things seem hopeless and helpless, God is still working. I don’t want to even remotely suggest that God will use the SBC reports of sexual abuse or the school shootings for a good purpose – I think that is bad theology and disrespectful of the families suffering unimaginable grief right now- but I do, deep down, believe that God is still at work in the world and in our lives, as we walk beside, pray for, and help survivors of abuse and families whose lives are now shattered, and as we not only offer prayers for them, but as we put our prayers into action and actively seek to do the gospel work of making the world a better place by exposing and tearing down systems of oppression and violence that lead to such events. As Pastor Brent said in his First Notes this week, it isn’t a choice between “thoughts and prayers” and “action” – it’s both. Prayer works. And prayer leads us to act.

Secondly, I think it’s important to respond by remembering that as we do what I said above in walking with people who are suffering, that Jesus walks with us all through our suffering because of his own. God became like us and suffered a horrible death, yes for salvation and the forgiveness of sins, but also to identify with us and share in our own suffering…so we offer empathy to others because Christ offers to it us. Any time we can offer ourselves as presence in the life of someone suffering, we are sharing Christ with them.

Thirdly, it’s also important to remember the hope we have in the promise that in Jesus Christ, we will one day see a time where death, pain and suffering are no more. Revelation 21:3-4 reads: I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

I struggle with that one, especially in the midst of tragedy, because it doesn’t seem like much comfort to those who are grieving so badly in the present, but at the same time, it’s such a beautiful reminder that ultimately, there is hope for a better day, when our suffering will end. Perhaps that tension is part of it all. Regardless, I hope that it may be a small glimmer for someone struggling with something right now, whether it’s the tragedies I’ve mentioned or something more specific to your personal life in the here and now.

Lastly, I think our response to tragedy should be completely honest with God. I think sometimes we worry about offending God with brutal honesty and questions and doubt and anger, but those things show up all throughout scripture, especially the Psalms, and I have to think God is OK with it. We read parts of Psalms 22 and 88 on Sunday and I’d encourage you to read them…they’re Psalms of lamentation and therefore sort of bleak, but a great illustration of the fact that because God wants the whole of us to come before God in prayer, that includes the angry, heartbroken, desperate parts of us.

This turned out way longer than I imagined, but I hope that it is helpful or meaningful to someone, whether you’re as angry or heartbroken as I am about big national news stories, or you’re just dealing with your own personal stuff…I just want everyone to know that sometimes it’s difficult to trust that God is in control and that God ultimately has the final word over death and suffering, and that it’s OK to feel that way. God understands. God is with us. God knows. God feels – God shares in our heartbreak and grief – of that you can put your trust in always.

Blessings to you,
Chuck

Ash Wednesday/Lent

In the Southern Baptist churches where I grew up, we never observed Lent.  I had never even really heard of Lent until I was in college, when a friend in the music department came to class one day (Ash Wednesday) with ashes on her forehead.  She explained the symbolism and the beginning of the Lenten season to me and I’ve made it a point to observe this special time in the church calendar ever since.

Unfortunately, many protestant churches avoid Lent because it maybe seems ”a bit too Catholic.” Now, of course that is not the only reason many groups choose not to observe the Lenten seasons, but I believe it is a big one.  Ask many Baptists and other evangelical protestants if they celebrate Lent and their response will likely be along the lines of “isn’t that what Catholics do?”   Well, the answer is yes, although Lent is by no means exclusively a Roman Catholic observance.  Many groups of Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and other protestants observe this special season.  Part of the reason some groups avoid Lent is because during the reformation period, several reformers mistakenly believed that Lent was a more recent creation of the Roman church and in seeking to distance themselves in every way from Roman Catholicism, they rejected many holidays and observances of the church.

So anyway, what is Lent and why do we observe it?  Lent is the season of the church calendar of 40 days, beginning today, with Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter (the 40 days does not include Sundays, and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not include Saturdays either).  The 40 days symbolizes/emulates the 40 days of fasting and praying in the wilderness that Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry.  Lent is a observed as a period of fasting and penitence, of self-examination and repentance.  Lent is not necessarily fasting from food, but that is a common way to observe Lent.  Many people fast from something they enjoy, like coffee, a certain food, TV, reading magazines, etc, while many use Lent to add something to their lives, such as more time reading scripture, praying, exercising or doing something creative like writing or drawing.   One year in college I gave up listening to my favorite band for Lent because I realized that I spent more time listening to them than listening to God. The point is to sacrifice something that allows you more time to focus on the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  It is a time that I seek to empty a part of myself and fill it with more of Christ, to examine the way I live, the way I speak, the way I relate to God, other people and myself.  It can be a challenging and difficult time, but that’s the point.  Also, be careful not to publicize your sacrifice too much…this is a time of personal sacrifice and reflection. The rest of us don’t need to know how much you’re suffering for Jesus.

Lent can be a very deep and moving time in your spiritual life.  You may discover something about your relationship with God through this season that you wouldn’t have otherwise. 

I highly recommend you give this ancient spiritual practice a try, hoping and praying that you deepen your relationship with God and discover the deep and rich meaning in the Lenten season.

FBC will kick off Lent tonight at 6:00 in the sanctuary with our Ash Wednesday Service – I hope you will join us!

Here is a good daily prayer guide for Lent:
http://bit.ly/9J9Pbu

A LENTEN PRAYER
O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen
St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)

Remembrance/Anticipation

This is adapted from our Sunday School lesson from last Sunday – the first Sunday of 2022.

I was thinking about the story of Moses – Moses led a pretty epic life – so much so that there are multiple books of the bible and several Hollywood blockbusters dedicated to his story.

At the end of his life, though, he had a pretty specific, two part message for the Hebrew people. After being a Hebrew raised as Egyptian royalty, hearing God’s voice in a burning bush, leading his people out of slavery and toward the promise land (that he never got to enter), Moses told the people to 1) Remember what God has done, and 2) Anticipate what God is going to do.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day which is the day that you came out of Egypt, out of the place you were slaves, because the Lord acted with power to bring you out of there. (Exodus 13:3 CEB)

With the command to remember came warnings – if you don’t remember God’s good works and protection and deliverance, bad things will happen. And they did. The Old Testament is more or less the story of the people forgetting God’s goodness, bad things happening, and then being reminded of God’s goodness over and over.

I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live— by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deut. 30-:19-20 CEB)

Then Moses told the people to anticipate what God has yet to do by doing three things – loving God, obeying God, clinging to God. By doing these things, Moses says, you’ll survive.

So at the end of a year and beginning of another, often, especially these often troubling days, full of anxiety and uncertainty, maybe with a dash of hopefulness and excitement, I hope that you will follow the words of Moses –

First, remember – make a list, write down, or just say out loud in a prayer to God, the ways that God was with you in 2021. Maybe God brought you through something big, or maybe God spoke to you in smaller ways, but I think if you look deep you’ll find that God was at work somewhere in your life last year.

Second, anticipate – commit yourself to loving, obeying and clinging to God in 2022. Imagine it’s January of 2023 and think about what you hope and pray that you write about the first question after 2022. Who do you want to be in 2022? How does God need to work in your life in 2022?

Remember how good God is and anticipate that God isn’t done yet.

Happy New Year Blessings

Chuck

Fall Retreat 2021

Just a quick note to recap our Fall Retreat from the weekend!

I had a great time playing, worshipping, studying, listening to God together and I hope and pray that you/your kids did too!

I wanted to recap because I think it’s important that youth parents see the things we talked about, and to have it written down to go back and look at later as well.

Our theme was 2 Cor. 5:13 (not Ephesians 2:10 as I put on the shirts – D’OH!) – “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation” and expanding on what that looks like with several “I am” statements.

I am forgiven; I am a new creation; I am created in the image of God; I am strong; I am not alone; I am a child of God; I am loved.

I hope that if anything from this weekend sticks with anyone it is that last one – “I am loved.” If anyone came away from Fall Retreat with a better understanding of how much God loves them, then it was a success.

Lastly, I’ve now seen some of your kids shoot bows/arrows and throw axes and I haven’t resigned, so you know I’m committed to this group 😀 In all seriousness though, I am grateful for each and every student and adult that participated this weekend and to all the youth and youth parents for entrusting me with part of their spiritual care – it’s an honor and a blessing and I’m looking forward to many more weekends like this one (minus the UK losing to UT part).

Many blessings,

Chuck

God Up Close

If you missed last week’s Middle School Midweek gathering or High School Bible Study, fear not! It’s not imperative that you were there to come to the next ones!

Here’s the gist of the introduction to our “God Up Close” bible study with both groups:

In the Old Testament, there’s a name for God that means something like “God up close” – maybe “All together God,” “God (fully) alive” or “God connecting all things.” The Hebrew phrase is Chay Elohiym (pronounced Ka-ee Ello-heem).

This is the aspect of God’s personality we’re going to look at this fall on Wednesdays (middle school) and Sundays (high school). We’re going to look at characters from the bible who encountered God “up close” – they met this fully alive God in intimate and personal encounters – and we’ll talk about what these stories mean for our lives and our encounters with God today in 2021. We’ll look a characters like Abraham, Daniel, Mary Magdalene, Saul/Paul and starting this week, Jacob, who may have even wrestled with God.

I hope you’re on the lookout for the ways you can encounter God daily and see God at work in your life and in the world around you, and I hope that you’ll join me on Wednesdays or Sundays to have a deeper conversation about it!

Back To School

It’s that exciting time of year (or dreadful, depending on your perspective) when school starts back up.

I’m praying for all of our students at a wide variety of schools (and homeschooled too) as they begin this 2021-2020 school year. I pray for courage, strength, health, endurance, and that they will be faithful followers of Jesus at all time and all places.

Here are a few verses that I hope inspire you whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, administrator or work with youth in any way:

Don’t live in fear:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10

Look for opportunities to support each other:
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:2 

Think about holy things:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. – Phil 4:8

Choose Joy:
The LORD is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. – Psalm 28:7

Focus on God:
Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans. – Proverbs 16:3

And finally, I’ll offer this prayer for you all:

God of us all,
Bless these students, their parents, their teachers and administrators, their coaches, youth workers, and all who pour into their lives in different ways during this coming school year. In these times of uncertainty, restlessness, fear, and anxiety, on top of all of the normal things that occupy our minds, we pray for your wisdom, guidance, and peace to surround us all. May these students, and may we all, seek to live this day and everyday as your children, sharing your love and grace with all we encounter. In the name of God – Creator, Savior, Sustainer – Amen.

Beach Camp 2021!

I’d like to share a few reflections of my own from our trip to Gulf Shores with you.

First, I’m so grateful for each and every member of our youth group, and to have had a chance to get to know the 19 of you who went on this trip a little better. I love your spirits and your love for God and each other and it was such a joy to watch as you worshipped together, prayed for each other, shared your struggles and your joys with each other, prayed for me (that was very meaningful for me), questioned what the next steps in your faith are, and even decided that it was time to start following Jesus – What a week!

And all that in spite of the “emergencies.” I’ve been in youth ministry a long time so I’ve seen a lot and that stuff doesn’t phase me that much, but I am impressed with the good attitudes and even humor you all (mostly) shared through some of the unusual situations that arose on the trip.

Lastly, before I forget, and because I just want to have this written down somewhere, I want to share with you a slightly longer version of the devotion I shared on the beach as we received communion together, because that was a very meaningful part of the trip for me:

We received communion on the beach specifically because I wanted to reflect on the great significance I see in the connection between water and our faith story.

In the beginning of the story, the spirit of God hovered over the “deep.” God was there, working even in the primordial waters. Later, the psalmist tells us there is nowhere we can go that God is not with us, even at the bottom of the ocean.

In the gospels, Jesus first miracle was turning water into wine, because he understood the need for the party to go on – and I don’t mean Jesus was a drunk – I mean that he understood the need for fellowship and community. Later, some of his most memorable miracles also involved water…after he called his disciples (out of their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) he calmed the stormy sea that threatened their lives and even called one of them to step out in faith to walk to him on the water.

After his resurrection, Jesus met with his disciples for breakfast on the beach, and this was quite the time of reunion of friends and recommitment to the call to follow Jesus. It was a reminder that the tradition of communion (the first one) they started at the last supper was inseparable from their sense of community and deep love for one another.

And the water continues to be part of our story, even today, as we follow Christ in our own baptisms, signifying our death to the old ways of living and being risen with Christ to live in a similar community of friends and loved ones.

I so much think the water symbolizes our faith – creation, God’s protection/provision, Jesus’ miracles, the very foundation of Christianity with the original disciples, our own baptism – that I cannot escape the significance of receiving this greatest gift of God’s grace represented by the bread and the juice, on a beach, with a group of people I am growing to love very much.

The spirit of God was present in those pre-creation waters and the spirit of God is present with us in this bread, and in this juice, all the way in 2021.

Thanks be to God!

Luv is a Verb

In Sunday School last Sunday, we followed up on the lesson from the week before on “The Way of Sharing” and talked about how the early church showed their love for God and each other by sharing everything they had with each other and those in the community who were in need.

It reminded me of this song by dc Talk that came out when I was in youth, probably 6th grade, that I mentioned Sunday – Luv is a Verb – yes, it’s a silly misspelling of Love – and yes, that one guy is Toby Mac – and yes, it’s a pretty dated song – you might find this quite hilarious even – but here it is for your viewing and listening pleasure
(Listen, it was the 90s – we were living our best life with baggy jeans, flannel shirts and questionable pop/rock/rap mixtures)
DC Talk – Luv Is A Verb (Official Music Video) – YouTube

This is that “Agape” love that we talked about – love as a verb, love in action, love that God showed us, and we in turn show others.

I’ll leave you with part of 1 Corinthians 13 again, this time from The Message:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.


The Way of Sharing (or:All You Need Is Love)

You all aren’t old enough to know that Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love.” Actually, neither am I. But it makes a good title for this.

This last week in Sunday School, we continued our look at what it means to be a Sacred Community, focusing on “the way of sharing.”

The early church, The Way, practiced their love through sharing all that they had, which each other and with those in need around them in the community.

Remember those different kinds of love – the Greek words Phileo (the love between family and friends – like Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love) and Agape (love as a verb – love in action – we love others by how we treat them – the kind of love God demonstrated towards us in sending Jesus).

We need both to become a sacred community – we love each other like family and we love those outside our group by serving them out of that Agape kind of love – by sharing what God has blessed us with with those around us.

So this, week, practice love by sharing it with others.

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:34-35 The Message)

“The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.  The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.  There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,  and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.” (Acts 4:32-34 CEB)

Transformation

Yesterday in Sunday School we continued to talk about being “the way,” the early, early, early name for Christianity, and this week it was about The Way of Transformation.

One story of transformation we looked at was the story of Peter and how he changed from someone who was scared to even admit he knew Jesus (Matthew 26) to one of the leading figures in spreading the Christian faith throughout the world (Acts 1).

How can we ask God to transform us and give us that boldness to share our faith with others?

A second story we looked at was the story of that wee little man, Zacchaeus. We all know that story from VBS and children’s Sunday School I’m sure, but I hope you hear it in a fresh new way – to me, that is a story about transforming the way we see the world – the crowd looked at Zacchaeus and hated him because he represented the oppressive government that was occupying their land and he had also become rich off of their taxes – But Jesus looked at Zacchaeus through a different lens and saw him as a child of God that he wanted to be in relationship with.

How can we ask God to transform the way we see other people and help us see the world through God’s eyes?

And lastly, we didn’t talk about it yesterday, but one of the great stories of transformation in the bible is Saul transforming into Paul. Saul was one of the biggest enemies of “the way” until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and then, as Paul, wrote most of our New Testament and spread the gospel around the world.

How can we ask God to transform us from people who hinder the gospel and don’t follow “the way” into people who God uses to change the world?