A View from the Balcony

Lessons from Rocks, Water, and People: The Holy Land

 It was a trip of a lifetime.   I’m glad I did it.  I’m not sure I’ll go back.  After a week and a half of recovering from the red eye flights to Israel and back, plus nine full days of visiting sites,  I’ll try to assess my gleanings:
1.       I learned that you can take 454 photos of all the sites in the Holy Land, and when you return home to look over them they all look like pictures of rocks in 454 varied arrangements.  Some of the rocks have people posing in front of them.
2.      I learned to go easy on the Israeli breakfast.  Diving into assorted salads and smoked fish, especially the whole sardines, at 6:30 a.m. on your first day may not be the best idea, especially when traveling on a bus over the hills and valleys of Galilee.
3.      I learned that drinking from Jacob’s well, dipping my hands into the Jordan River, and drinking tap water in Bethlehem might have contributed to something which feels like little giardia now poking around in my gut.
4.      I learned something about trust.   Our bus was an Arab owned bus, driven by Mohammed,  an Arab Muslim, and guided by Samuel, an Arab Christian whose parents are of Egyptian Coptic and Greek Orthodox backgrounds. Not only did Mohammed drive us through some pretty secondary winding roads up and down the Golan Heights, he and our guide took us into Palestinian West Bank territories. Here was an Arab Muslim who cared for the safety of his passengers.  If we ever thought that all Arab Muslims were terrorists or suicide bombers (and I hope none in our group did), Mohammed helped dispel that fear.  He could have done us in with one wrong turn of the steering wheel.
5.       I learned the plight of so many Palestinians who are without a homeland and who feel trapped and hopeless.  We entered West Bank areas where only a Palestinian Arab bus and driver could go, and where the Israeli government prohibits its own citizens from entering due to danger and the fact that it is against their own law.   We saw Palestinian refugee areas and felt the hopelessness of so many in Bethlehem who are weary of the captivity and isolation of living within the walls and barbed wire fences which surround their city.
6.      While I loved the pilgrimage aspect of our trip, including the singing of hymns and reading of Scripture at the many holy sites, I realized that what makes a place, person, or thing “holy” is not the location, or the proximity to where Jesus or the disciples walked, but how God chooses to utilize people and places for God’s unique purposes wherever they are.  So while I enjoyed, appreciated, and felt inspired by these Holy sites, I kept finding the “holy” in the faces of the children, both Israeli and Arab, Muslim,  Christian, and Jew, who await a better and more hopeful future for this problematic area of the world.
7.      I learned that visiting the Holy Land does not in itself make me more holy.   I become more “holy”  (i.e. utilized by God) when I realize that the land on which I stand, wherever that is, can be holy ground where I open myself to God’s good purposes.
I suppose I learned that I am more an anthropologist that archaeologist.   I looked for hope in the faces and personalities of the people I met, trying to see the “holy” possibilities  in each of them, then looking deeper into my own soul for the “holy” in me.

The Hospitality of FBC of Elon

Romans 12:13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Change has recently come to First Baptist Church of Elon. God’s calling of the Mofields to continue their ministry and  serving Christ just down the road is the most obvious change. The recent addition of Rev. Laura Primm to FBC of Elon staff marks the beginning of a new ministry and another form of change. The annual rites of passage of a new school year for our youth, teachers, and parents will uncover the realization that yet another form of change is upon us. There are perhaps many other changes taking place within the walls of FBC of Elon and outside of the walls of FBC of Elon affecting all of us. No matter how much we hear it, experience it, like or dislike it, change is an inevitable part of our lives. Yes, it appears that God even allows for transitions to take place in our most hallowed space, the church.

In his recent homily, Rev. Durham has used the sacred hour of worship to edify us and challenge us to embellished this time as an opportunity to go deeper! I was struck by the question that Rev. Durham put to us as a congregation and as individuals “Will I follow or fall away?” I wanted to share with you not another typical “remain steadfast in your trials and  God’s grace will be sufficient enough to get us through this” message of encouragement. This is true, but I wanted to share with you from the perspective of an outsider to your family, why FBC of Elon has the glue and makeup to not fade away during this time at the “crossroads.”

Many of you have come to know me and my wife as the fortunate and blessed parents of that bundle of joy named Langston. Before Langston came into our lives, we were introduced and came to know of FBC of Elon through an invitation to attend the Career Net ministry. Cori and I found ourselves in a position that neither one of us could ever have imagined. We were five months into a difficult pregnancy, both without the means of a steady income, about to be first-time parents, and having relocated back to Burlington within a year after a career opportunity did not blossom. Oh by the way, I forgot to add in the cross-country move from North Dakota that took place somewhere in the midst of all of that. We were and still are having our Job experience!

Then we were extended hospitality by a group of people in yourselves who lived out the following words: “God is calling us to be a church that is compassionate, serving, and accepting.” It was not just a one-time occurrence, but it became a recurring act and demonstration of a commitment with visits to the hospital, bodies of joyful people delivering meals and filling the space of our apartment, and invitations to fulfill life long dreams of fellowship outings at ACE Speedway. Most importantly, your outpouring of love for our beloved Langston has given me comfort in knowing that our son has a “home church of good church folk” where he has been embraced. You have been an effective witness for Christ and God’s deliverance on his promises to supply all our needs. Your acts of hospitality have aligned with the scripture at the beginning.

I share with you what my family has experienced from this Body of Christ an opportunity to witness true worshipers worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth through your acts of hospitality. I share this as words of encouragement. As you stand at the crossroads as a congregation during this period of transition do so knowing that you are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. The decisions you will have to make in the upcoming months will indeed have far-reaching consequences. I want you to be encouraged and reminded that it is within you First Baptist Church of Elon to not fade away or grow weary of the challenges of change. It is within you to continue to Follow Christ and epitomize these words: “God is calling us to minister in ways that are honest, loving, respectful, and faithful.” You have given me the courage and hope in my own faith journey that my family can make it through our own crossroads if we can just hold onto God’s unchanging hand. As my family continues to face our own adversity of uncertainty, I can not hide that it is and has been hard to remain faithful and patient in God’s promises. But I take comfort in knowing that if we just Follow and not Fall Away from the God we seek to serve, I am certain that in our desire to remain in Him he will remain in us and we shall bear fruit!

 

Joy and Happiness

When I attended the end-of-camp presentations at Camp Green Leaves last month I saw joy and happiness and I left with joy and happiness in my heart.   As each group did the presentations, there were smiles and hugs all around.  Both the campers and the counselors were enthusiastic about the songs and dances and about themselves.  Of special interest was when at the end of one of the songs, and not a planned part of the program,  a young boy turned to the audience and said, “See, I told you I would succeed!”  Maybe that was what all the joy and happiness was about.  “We may not all be able to do great things, but all of us can do small things with great enthusiasm.”

 

Is Your Antivirus up to date?

Think of your mind a place to store and process data. Your strengths as software. We all sin whether or not we mean too. There are a lot of destructive forces bombarding us on a daily basis. How we choose to deal with them is up to us. Viruses attacking a computer is a lot like the devil trying to get into your life. As soon as you let your guard down the devil will find a way to tempt you.

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert dealing with the devil trying to break down his defenses. He was tempted by offerings of kingdoms, make your own food. and I bet you can fly. Jesus knew better than to test God. He had God’s antivirus in place and up to date.

“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

The Bible is our antivirus. Reading and learning from the various teachings throughout the bible will help you understand how to be strong in faith. As your faith strengthens so will your ability to fight off the temptations in your life.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”(Romans 12:2)

Witness

Growing up in the church, I have heard a lot of people talk about how Christians need to be out in the world “witnessing”.  That’s one of those churchy words:  witnessing.  Usually, what that has meant is telling the world that they need Jesus.  Churches and publishing companies have developed whole programs and written numerous books teaching people how to “witness to others.”  Over time, I will admit, I found myself put off by most of these efforts.  They either seemed too judgmental or too scripted or too hateful.

Recently though, I have found myself wanting to reclaim the idea of being a witness. In reading through the New Testament as a church these last few months, I have come to realize that my problems with “witnessing” were with what the church for decades turned it into.  In Acts 2:32, Peter gives the truest meaning of what it means to be a witness:  “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”  At Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples were sharing what they had seen Jesus do, what they had heard Jesus say.

What I have come to realize is that, for far too long, our “witnessing” efforts as Christians had less to do with what we have seen God do and more to do with what we have seen man do.  We witnessed by calling people sinners, but we would hesitate to share how Christ had dealt with the sin in our own lives.  We witnessed by laying out points and steps but without talking about the relationship that we ourselves shared with our Heavenly Father.  In short, we made witnessing something we had to learn.  I didn’t have to learn how to talk about what my wife or my kids mean to me, the difference they have made in my life.  If someone wants to hear, I just tell them what is on my heart.  Shouldn’t witnessing be that:  sharing from our heart about Christ and His love based on what we have seen and heard?

Right now, at First Baptist Elon, we are offering a seminar called “What’s Your Story?  Equipping the Saints to Build & Share Your Testimony”.  As David and I have been talking and preparing, our heart has been to reclaim the Acts 2 basis for witnessing:  share what you have seen and heard, share what Christ has done for you.  My hope is that this will not be just another program to drill into people’s heads what to say.  Instead, my hope is that we will set people free to reflect on how Scripture and experience has revealed the presence of the living Christ in their lives and the difference that relationship makes.  I really believe that the better witnesses we are, the better we are able to proclaim the gospel message of salvation.

Trees

I never noticed until this week that the Bible ends where it began:  at a tree.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

The last time we saw the tree of life was when Adam and Eve were being ushered out of the Garden of Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-23).  Now, as Scripture’s narrative draws to a close, here once again is the tree of life.  No longer is it tucked away in a garden guarded by an angel.  Now, it is in the middle of the new Jerusalem, in the middle of the street it seems, its fruit and leaves available not only to a few people but to anyone and everyone who passes by.

As I consider this image, I think of how many times I think perfect happiness or perfect peace is just out of reach.  “If only I had a little more time”.  “If I only we made a little more money”.  “If only we had a little bigger house”.  “If only I can get through this week”.  It feels like the tree of life is on the other side of a fence that is just a little too tall to climb.

What I am struck by as I read Revelation is that perfect happiness and perfect peace is not found in more time, more money, bigger houses, or less stress.  It is only in the presence of the living Lord that truly perfect joy and truly perfect peace will be experienced.  And the day is coming when we will so freely be in God’s presence that we will be able to just reach out and pluck a juicy fruit of contentment or roll in the leaves of perfect healing.  In the meantime, maybe I need to focus more on getting more of the one who planted the tree of life in the first place.  He is the one who can put all of that other stuff into proper perspective.

Fighting the Good Fight

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7

“When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon – men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.” – Lord Charles Fox, the movie “Amazing Grace”

On Sunday, I’ll be talking about finishing the race.  For a moment, though, I want to reflect on fighting the good fight.

Notice Paul’s words:  he didn’t fight a fight or the fight, he fought the good fight.  And not only did he fight the good fight, he fought the good fight well.  He did not fight with stones or swords.  He had tried that once before, resulting in a literal come-to-Jesus moment where the Lord asked Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).  No, the only “weapon” that Paul used in his good fight was Christ, and Him crucified, a “weapon” that Paul readily admitted seemed to be foolish and ineffective choice (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Throughout time, Christian faith has been called weak and a crutch and other derogatory names that characterize our faith as a salve for weak losers.  In response, Christians have sometimes tried to “John Wayne” up our faith.  I’ve seen the strong guys rip up the phone books and heard the pastor proclaim he had his pistol with him in the pulpit.  Yet I am left to ask this question:  why is our greatest missionary a man who put down the weapons of the world and found power in a crucified Lord?  Why is that men like William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Christian men of peace, have brought about some of the most lasting change the world has ever seen?

There is a good fight to be fought.  It is fought not to prove we are right or they are wrong.  It is fought not to devastate or annihilate but to proclaim and convince, to rebuke and encourage.  (2 Timothy 4:2).  Most importantly, it is not fought with the weapons of mankind.  Instead, it is fought with one plain but powerful truth:  the crucified Jesus is the risen King of kings.  There is no greater power than that.

 

Resolution & Resolve

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.  And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 5:41-42).

A resolution has been proposed in the N.C. legislature that would state that North Carolina, as a sovereign state, has the authority to declare for itself an official state religion.  According to news reports, the resolution has been proposed in response to various court cases and court rulings regarding the opening of government sessions with “sectarian” prayers.  The resolution states that the federal government and federal courts do not have the Constitutional power to regulate such matters at state and local levels.

I am not a Constitutional scholar or a legal expert, so I will not even attempt to deal with these issues.  However, it was interesting to read this resolution as well as the various news reports about it in this week when we are reading the stories about the early church and the joys and trials they experienced.

In the Acts 5 passage above, we see joy and trial brought together.   The apostles are arrested by the high priest and the Sadducees for preaching and teaching about Jesus, even though they have been ordered not to do so by the high priest.  The temple council is ready to kill them for their perceived disobedience and blasphemy, but one of the council members stands up and argues that if this movement is man-made it will fail.  However, he goes on, if the movement is from God, then any action of the council will not be able to stop it.  The council is supposedly convinced by his argument, but they can’t let the apostles go without first flogging them and ordering them to be silent (so much for keeping away from them and letting them alone!).

And how do the apostles respond?  Do they go running to the Romans complaining about unfair treatment?  Do they demand new laws or new elections?  Nope, they rejoice.  They rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.  And then they go right on teaching and preaching.

It is interesting that so many Christians have become so enamored with responding to perceived persecution by turning to the powers of government to demand justice.  The early church saw governmental persecution not as a call to legislate but as a call to trust more in the commission of Christ than in the powers of the world.  When suffering and persecution came, they didn’t lawyer up, they rejoiced that they had the opportunity to suffer for Christ as Christ had suffered for them.

There will be other times and other opportunities to have conversations about the political and theological foundations of separation of church and state and of our Baptist heritage.  For today, though, maybe we need to be reminded as Christians that sometimes faith and politics are going to be at odds with one another – they have been from the beginning.  And when they are at odds, perhaps the question we should ask is not what legal action to take but whether the practice of our faith depends upon laws and resolutions.  If it does, then perhaps the problem is not with government but with our faith.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Gone Fishin’

When my brother and I were kids, our dad would take us out to a friend’s house to go fishing.  The house had once been a hunters’ club lodge and was set right next to a private lake.  We would get up early in the morning, fish for a few hours, swim in the lake in the afternoon, and then go back out fishing in the early evening.  Usually we caught something, and that something usually was our dinner.  They were called fishing trips, but really the trip was less about the fish and more about the hours in the boat with dad or sitting on the dock with mom or gathered around the grill with friends.  It was about relationship.

In Matthew 17, Jesus sends Peter on a fishing trip.  However, this is a rather unusual fishing trip.  Allow me to share what Matthew writes:

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  He said, “Yes, he does.”  And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or from others?”  When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The first question that comes to my mind is what Peter was thinking as he walked home after running into the temple tax collectors.  He had defended Jesus in front of them, but where exactly was the income from which Jesus was to pay this tax?  I wonder if Peter was worrying and fretting about how this was to take place.

Jesus turns this into an interesting teaching moment.  He refuses to let Peter keep this problem to himself.  He asks him about it, in kind of an indirect way.  Do kings tax their own children?  Well, of course they don’t.  It is their subjects that pay taxes.  “Then the children are free.”

The temple was understood for centuries to be the house of God, the place where God’s throne rested.  Jesus in five words has explained why he doesn’t have to pay the temple tax:  he is the Son of the King, the Son of God.  Jesus uses tax law to explain his own divinity.  And who said taxes were a bad thing!

But the really cool part was what Jesus says next.  Jesus tells Peter to go fishing and to look in the mouth of the first fish he catches.  There he will find a gold coin that is to be used to pay the temple tax not only on Jesus’ behalf but on Peter’s as well.

Jesus didn’t have to pay the temple tax; it didn’t apply to him.  However, he was willing to pay the tax not only on his behalf but on behalf of Peter, who probably didn’t have the ability to pay it for himself.

Suddenly, Peter’s fishing trip is not about fishing or even taxes.  It is a parable of why Jesus came into our world:  he came to pay the price for sin that was not his for the sake of those who could not pay the price themselves.  And it’s about relationship.  Jesus didn’t want Peter to have to give up following him in order to go earn money to pay the tax.  He wanted to keep Peter close to his side.  That was why the gold coin was for both of them.  It was about relationship.

Christ paid a price that was not His to pay, and He paid it because we could not do so ourselves.  He paid it so that we could stay close by His side, so that we could have a relationship with Him.

In the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator says of his upbringing, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”  The same appears to have been true of Jesus.  In my mind, I see Peter, standing by the sea, pulling out a hook and a coin from the mouth of a fish.  This was not a fish story, it was a salvation story.

The Time Has Come

“There’s smoke!”

These words, in most cases, would be words of caution and warning.  Yesterday, these words were words of celebration for the thousands gathered in Vatican City, awaiting the announcement of who the next pope would be.  Ever since the white smoke appeared and the cardinals announces Pope Francis I, the question that has been on so many lips has been, “So what can we expect from this new pope?”

Mark’s gospel begins with an announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).  You can consider this the “white smoke” moment of the gospels.  But there is a question that would chase Jesus throughout his ministry, the same question that is now pursuing Pope Francis I:  what can we expect?

Through word and deed, Jesus would answer this question.  We can expect God’s promises to be fulfilled.  We can expect sins to be forgiven.  We can expect Satan to be vanquished.  We can expect an end to sickness.  We can expect the dead to rise.

But we can also expect the unexpected.  Those who shout to the rooftops proclaiming how righteous they are may find themselves face to face with a Lord who is wondering who they are.  Those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first.  There will be crosses to take up, possessions to give up.  And what was that about “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life …”?

Perhaps the saddest words I read this week were in John 6:66:  “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  I imagine these folks were all excited to see the smoke, to hear that the time had come, but found themselves disappointed when the kingdom of God as revealed in Christ did not meet their expectations.  So many times, our spiritual journeys become sidetracked by disillusionment and discouragement when it seems that Christianity is less than what we hoped.  Jesus even told a parable about this reality (Mark 4:3-9).

If this is where you are in your journey, I want to invite you to consider this:  when so many turned and left Jesus, He looked at His disciples and asked, “Do you want to go away too?”  I love Peter’s response:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).

There will be unexpected tests and struggles as part of our Christian journey.  But there will always be unexpected blessings.  The prodigal son is welcomed home.  The Samaritan is the hero of the story.  The one lost sheep is not left behind.  And even when the unexpected is unpleasant, our hope remains assured:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

Our faith is not a product of smoke and mirrors.  It is our response to the Messiah who has come calling for His children to turn to Him.  It is because of Him, because of His resurrection,  that we expect eternal life.  And so we follow on, joining Him in sharing with the world this good news:  “The time has come, and the kingdom of God has come near.”