Senior Pastor Update in the Time of COVID-19 (March 25, 2020)

Here is my latest update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. I also encourage you to watch the video of our worship team leading the song “Way Maker,” from this past weekend’s service. It is such a powerful song, particularly during these days.

 

Taking Shelter in God: reflections on Isaiah 25

storm

You have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
and a shade from the heat. (Isaiah 25:4a)

This chapter from Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to the restoration God will bring for His people even as “ruthless nations” rise up against them. Isaiah speaks of both a future restoration as well as a present help from God that is rooted within God’s “perfect faithfulness” (vs 1) and sovereignty (“wonderful things planned long ago” – vs 1). We see here that the overriding vision of God gripping Isaiah’s heart and mind transforms his outlook on the present circumstances. Let’s consider again the phrases Isaiah uses to describe God in verse 4:

  • “a refuge for the poor”
  • “a refuge for the needy”
  • “a shelter from the storm”
  • “a shade from the heat”

Isaiah reminds us that in a wide variety of circumstances, both natural and social, God protects and keeps His people. It is not a question—”will God do this?”—but an expected certainty—”God will do this.” At the same time, notice what Isaiah does not tell us here. He does not say, “Because you trust in God you will never face distress, meager times, storms, or heat.” Isaiah is not so unrealistic in his faith as that. He has weathered his own storms, and is facing some when writing these words. Instead, he reminds us that when stormy times come upon us, God is with us and available to us as a trustworthy refuge, shelter, and shade.

Isaiah continues his prophecy with images of restoration that we later encounter in the final book of the New Testament (Isaiah 25:6-8; Revelation 21:1-5). John drew upon Isaiah’s words in the closing chapters of Revelation, and so they are familiar to many of us. These images depict darkness’ removal like the lifting of a shroud, death decisively swallowed up, tears wiped away, and disgrace eliminated. Such beautiful imagery grabs our hearts and fills our imagination with hope. When our present circumstances resonate more with darkness, tears, death, and disgrace, it is good to read again words filled with such ebullient hope. Isaiah speaks with prophetic power that our dark circumstances are not the end of the story, whether our story or that of the broader world. God is still at work.

The critical calling in all of this for us is to trust God. “In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him” (Isaiah 25:9). As it did for Isaiah, what characterizes God’s people in distress, storms, and heat is their overriding vision of God that shapes their outlook through trust in God. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are easily overcome by anxieties about what will come, confusion about how to live in the present, and paralysis about what to do and what not to do. Every day the news changes, leaving us like a boat cast upon rough and stormy waters. This is the natural reality of being human with all our limitations.

However, the question that each of us must answer is what we will do when these anxieties surround us. Will we let them overwhelm us so that our outlook is shaped more by our circumstances and the anxieties that so readily result from them? When it comes down to it, what will shape our vision and outlook in life?

In a sense, we have entered into the moment of our faith’s testing. Although it may sound simplistic, do we trust only what we can see or do we trust the Living God? “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Certainly faith also sees what gathers around, but that is not all the eyes of faith sees. When our overriding vision is of God and not just our circumstances, we know we can bring our anxieties and fears to God in prayer. That movement of faith to reach out to God enables us to encounter God as our refuge, shelter, and shade. We move forward driven by faith—active trust in God—and not by fear—agitated anxiety about our circumstances. In these days all of us need that reminder again and again. I believe this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote from prison to the Philippian church:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We have entered into a time of deep distress that will mark our lives in many ways. But take heart, my friends, our God is with us as “a shelter from the storm.”

Living with Christian Hope

sunrise

What is hope?

We all have hopes of different sorts. In the past we may have talked about the hope of a new job, a life partner, or an amazing gift for our birthday. In times like this, hope becomes more focused, when consider the basics of our health, our livelihood, and, in some cases, survival.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is an expectation. It is a desire. It is a longing and yearning that something would become a reality. By definition, hope has two basic parts:

  • The longing that exists within us
  • The object, or goal, toward which our longing is directed

Some of us, when we talk about hope, put the emphasis mostly on the first part of that: we emphasize the longing that exists within us. We have hope – a sort of vague, fuzzy longing – that things would be better, but the object – or goal – of our hope is sometimes undefined or unclear.

When we come to Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus, the essence of hope is something more focused and clear. In Jesus’ walk along the Emmaus road with the disciples who did not recognize them, this topic of hope surfaces multiple times. Look at the words spoken by those men walking the road with Jesus:

The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. (Luke 24:20-21)

Christian hope is a desire – a longing – that is firmly fixed on Jesus as the object of our hope. Christian hope is, essentially, the longing that what Jesus promised – and what we see in Scripture – about life with God and His kingdom is ultimately true. Christian hope has a fixed object – Jesus’ life and teaching – and builds upon that.

Consider with me how the Apostle Paul writes about hope in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Let me highlight just a few basic things that Paul is saying here in Romans about hope:

  • Hope begins from our ‘justification of faith’ (vs 1): this is the justification before God – being put right in standing before God – that comes to us by Jesus going to the Cross and returning to life in victory over sin, death, and evil in the Resurrection. Hope is based on that historical event.
  • Hope stands in the state of grace (vs 2): God sees us through Jesus Christ and not through our sins and wrongs. Grace means that we receive something from God we do not deserve: mercy in place of judgment; kindness instead of wrath; hope instead of despair.
  • Hope lives with perseverance (vss 3-4): Hope believes that God is at work in the midst of our sufferings and trials, doing something in us. Hope believes that God is making us people of character through our difficulties until we see Him face to face.
  • Hope looks toward ultimate glory of God (vss 1 & 5): Hope anticipates both God’s glory fully revealed at the end of human history and God’s glory revealed to us individually at the end of our physical lives because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Christian hope says there will come a day when God will make all things right and new at the end of human history in the new heaven and new earth. Hope is the longing for this reality ever before us

Some might say that Christianity is just wishful thinking. Frederick Buechner offers this unique reframing of that accusation:

Christianity is mainly wishful thinking…

Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-ups is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking.

Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on.

Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. [1]

We may respond to those who accuse Christian hope of being “wishful thinking” that perhaps the wishful thinking could be called faith. And perhaps faith is a way to access a reality that is there. And perhaps the reason we dream about such a thing being true is that the truth has birthed such a dream within us in the first place.

Christian hope is, essentially, the longing that what Jesus promised – and what we see in Scripture – about life and eternity is ultimately true. Christian hope flows out of Jesus’ resurrection from death after the Cross. It reshapes the way we view our failings, our sufferings, and the end of our lives. It also reshapes the way we view our world.

Jesus’ resurrection allow us to live with hope that there is meaning in our lives and meaning beyond our lives. When we live with hope, we have meaning both for now and for our future.  With the Apostle Paul, we can say,

and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

 


[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers , 1973), 96.

 

 

The Soul-Satisfying Love of God: a reflection on Isaiah 55

Glass of Water

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Are we thirsty? Are we in touch with our thirst? Are we penniless? Do we know just how empty our pockets and storehouses are?

For a moment, if only for a moment, let us come into contact with the depths of our insatiable desires and our utter incapacity to truly satisfy those desires by our own efforts. There is so much available to us from God, as represented here in Isaiah 55, but the simple key to access it is our decision to come to God and find life. Such an apparently simple action seems difficult in one way yet easy in another way.

Deciding for God and the satisfaction that He offers is difficult because it costs us in at least two distinct ways. First, it costs us because we must open our live, admitting our great need and dissatisfaction. We must say, “Yes, it is true. I am not as satisfied as I suppose or portray. I actually desire something much more than I can attain for myself.” In a culture set on personal freedom and capacity it may seem like a cardinal sin to admit our lack of contentment with all that is available to us. Second, and related, coming to God is costly because it leads us away from all other things we have attempted to use as means to satisfy ourselves. It costs us our other gods, our delightful soul-sweethearts, leading us out of their embrace and into the jealous embrace of the God sho is the true Lover of our souls. Turning to God will be costly in at least these two ways, making the journey of coming to God one that is challenging for each and every one of us.

In another way, however, coming to God is easy. The God of the universe steps forward with His arms open, promising to satisfy us with true life. He takes both the initiative and pays the cost necessary to make such an offer possible. We want what God has for us. We come with nothing to offer—no payment for the price necessary—and yet the offer is ours for the taking. The reorientation of our lies to this God and His great promises of love and life are something we simply step forward to receive through the response of faith. Certainly, it is the beginning of the journey with God that involves continuous letting go of that which is not life, and grabbing ahold of God and what is truly life. Yet, the satisfaction of our desire and the filling of our need by God is also ever-new. In fact, we are told that God’s steadfast love is new every morning and His faithfulness exceeds our expectation (Lamentations 3:22-23). The turn toward God is easy because, in comparison with the cost, the sheer gift of falling into the satisfying embrace of God is pricelessly valuable.

So, let us come to Him and find life. Let us shed our idolatrous soul-sweethearts and encounter the Lover of our souls—not once, like some fling, but again and again within the covenant of love.

Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.

Unfinished: Growing with God through our limitations

science of miracles

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

“A leader who leads well is a lifelong learner, always seeking to find out more about who we are now and who we are becoming.” – Stephen W. Smith, Inside Job: The Work Inside the Work, 45.

“A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after learning.” – Thomas à Kempis

I seek You, Lord, in the morning as a way to say that You are the first thing of importance to me. I seek You that I might find my sense of meaning, love, and belonging first in You. There is no other person or place in which I can truly find these things other than in You. All others are limited and changeable, but You are limitless and faithful. Draw me into Your presence where truth and grace are found in all their fullness. Show me Yourself and then also show me who I am in You.

We are unfinished in life, yet held in the hands of the Finisher. We are not yet complete, but in Christ the promise of completion is secure. To be unfinished means:

  • we are looking for more and will not settle
  • we are open to growth and yielded to opportunities for growth, even when this is difficult
  • we are eager to learn and apply ourselves to lifelong learning
  • we are not surprised to encounter our weaknesses, limitations, and sins, but we see them as opportunities to meet with God for transformation
  • we recognize that others, too, are unfinished, and we meet them with grace that urges them toward growth and truth that calls them to more than where they are now
  • we recognize joys as places of celebration and troubles as opportunities for renovation of life
  • we are ever beginners and all our wisdom leads us to greater humility with God, self, and others
  • we need other people in our lives because we are aware that we have blindspots in our lives

Lord, unfinished as I am, teach me to accept that and to grow through that for Your glory.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

The Fatherly Discipline of God: a reflection on Hebrews 12

Tree in mist

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children….God disciplines us for our good in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it….without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:7, 10, 11, 16)

While the writer of Hebrews does not ascribe all hardship to the Lord, he does encourage believers to receive it—to endure it—as God’s discipline upon us. Such discipline, he suggests, is a sign of God’s fatherly care for us meant to shape us for our own good, which, in this context, means that we share in God’s holiness.

Those who have had good parental figures, know what this looks like. A good parent disciplines us so that we might stop doing things that are either not good for us or for others. Such discipline aims to direct our efforts and goals away from that which is not helpful and toward that which is helpful. In the ideal situation, such discipline makes us into the sort of people we need and want to be.

So, too, God seeks to shape us for our own good. His discipline steers us away from sin, whether against ourselves or others, and toward holiness that is truly good. If we receive God’s discipline as the grace that it is, then over the course of our lives we will become the sort of people God most wants us to be and that we were truly made to be. It is striking that elsewhere in Hebrews, the writer says that even Jesus was made “perfect through what he suffered” (Hebrews 2:10). If Jesus needed that here on earth, how much more do we?

We endure the unpleasantness of the discipline in the present so that “a harvest of righteousness and peace” might arise from our lives. Like a farmer who prepares the land through the harsh action of plowing—land broken up and turned over—so God must at times plow up our lives through the discomfort of discipline. We, like the land before the farmer, must yield to God’s cultivation in our life, letting Him plow, plant, nurture, and bring forth the harvest He desires. This discipline is intended to “train” us and, ultimately, open up God’s best reality within our lives.

Lord, the hardships I face are sometimes difficult to endure. Sometimes my heart is weighed down by it, but I yearn to submit to You within it.  I admit I do not know exactly how You are training me, but I choose to submit to Your fatherly care and discipline in my life.

 

Standing Firm in the Lord: a reflection on Ephesians 6

mountaintop

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10-11)

What always captures my attention in these verses is the reality of our conflict and the source of our defense. Paul takes it for granted that the devil has schemes that work against the Christian community. The devil opposes  God and God’s people with efforts that are sometimes straightforward and at other times are wily schemes. As followers of Jesus, we do well to be on alert with watchfulness and ready at all times to take our stand against these attacks, regardless of what form they take.

The source of our defense, though, is not our own watchfulness or steadfastness. Instead, our strength is “in the Lord and in his mighty power.” We clothes ourselves not just with the greatest of human virtues but with “the full armor of God.” Our source is God Himself and the strength that He offers. Our defense is a God-birthed and God-like character of life: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvations, and the word of God. Armed by God to become more like God, we are well-equipped to stand firm in the face of attacks.

To take one’s stand in the face of attacks, particularly the schemes of the devil, is not easy. We all have encountered the power of gossip, falsehood, slander, distortions of truth, and more. These are the mere tip of the iceberg of the devil’s schemes. The moment you give attention to defusing one, another pops up unexpectedly.

It is in facing into these schemes with all their diverse nefariousness that standing firm is both so difficult and so powerful. It should come as no surprise that of all the exhortations Paul offers in Ephesians, this is one that he repeats several times. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13, emphasis mine). Again, Paul offers a similar exhortation to the church in Corinth because of the power of Christ’s resurrection. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58a). This is not the immovability of prideful stubbornness, but the persevering steadfastness of humble dependence upon God. When attacks come, and they will, the believer must stand firm in God.

Lord, give us grace today to stand firm in You. Help us not to be surprised by the attacks, but to turn to You for power to persevere. Save us from trust in fading hopes—”chariots or horses”—that often appear so powerful. Instead, we declare that we will “trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).