In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, Job suffers every conceivable loss and heartache in a short period of time. His grief, confusion and despair are unfathomable for most who have not sat in his shoes. It is in the midst of his torment that three of his friends show up to console Job. For seven days and nights, they simply are present with their friend. In the Book of Job it says, “No one said a word to Job for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”
Indeed over the course of my life there have been occasions when I felt compelled to heed this counsel and simply sit with the one for whom I was caring. Perhaps I should be taking this Godly advice this week and say nothing about Las Vegas and the horror and resultant unimaginable grief directly affecting thousands of our fellow human beings. Maybe I should just be offering a blank page to create room for us to pray.
But in the midst of such questioning I was hit with another question. A question that I cannot answer for you as I believe we each need to come to our own conclusion. That question, “Is it worth it?”
Two people meet. There is an unexplainable chemistry. When they look into each other’s eyes, there is a look that cannot be replicated with any other human being. A father reaches out and takes the hand of his young daughter. As they walk along, the father recognizes the gift that his daughter is and that such blessings are ephemeral.
A woman, well trained in medicine, travels to a war torn area or a place decimated by a natural disaster to serve those with nothing left. A nanny quietly kisses a sleeping child on her forehead because she knows the parents won’t take the time to do so.
A young fellow pulls over on the highway to help a family who are in a beaten up old van with a flat tire. A minimum wage nurse’s aide stays after her shift is over on her own time to sit with an aged woman whose family has other things to do. A wealthy man believes all he has is a gift so he generously gives money away with zero demand for accolades or credit. An unemployed woman who struggles day to day puts a dollar in the plate each week, it is her widow’s mite.
A neighbor makes a meal for a neighbor. A friend sends a note of encouragement to a far away friend who is hurting. A single mom works two jobs and stays up late at night helping her two children complete homework. A 7th grader goes straight to the kid who had been subjected to teasing and asks him to play. A person says, “I am sorry.” After scoring two touchdowns, the high school player gives all the credit to his team.
A first responder shows up while bullets continue to fly rendering aid to whomever is before him. A man shields his wife from the gunfire saving her life yet losing his own. A person stands in silence at the scene of the massacre and quietly prays to God for healing for those whom she has never met.
Each of these images, while varied, share one thing in common. The action taken happened because the person involved had the free will to choose to do so. None of the actions were forced. They happened because a decision was made. Goodness, kindness, generosity, integrity, and selflessness, are a direct consequence of the freedom to choose. And such actions far outnumber the actions of those who choose the path of evil.
The same is true of love. Love can never be forced. Love can only be love through the freedom to love. I cannot make another love me, nor can any of us. Love demands free will and love cannot exist without it. And love is far more ubiquitous than hate.
Yet it is this same free will, this same ability to make choices, this same freedom to choose, that since the beginning of time has led some to inflict unspeakable harm, destruction, and suffering on others. From Austin, Texas, to Virginia Tech, to Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas, all such things happened because of free will and of course evil playing on it.
And so I wonder, is free will worth it? Or would humankind be better without the option of making choices and acting on volitional decisions? Would we be better off without love, the kind of love that demands free will? Would we be better off as robots without the ability to decide? Is free will worth it? If not, then what? If so, then what?
There have been many times in my life in which I have had nothing to say about the pain before me. All I’ve known to do in such moments is to get on my knees and pray, look at the cross of Jesus and leave the answers to Him. And pray we must as well as love. To love God and love people through the choices we make each moment in light of those who choose the opposite. Take a moment right now and pray for our hurting sisters and brothers in Las Vegas and beyond.
As I reflect upon many dimensions of our culture including politics, entertainment, sports, the news, and even religious institutions and its leaders, it seems that there is a dearth of a vital virtue, and that is humility. I’d like to think that humility appears absent because it is a quiet unassuming quality, but I am afraid there is more to it than that simple explanation.
While not a new thing, at the center of the lives of many, is the unsatisfied hunger for power, influence, control, ego, and financial capital. Obviously when such things are tempered and used for the right reasons, good things happen, but often when power and the like is used for good, humility, not control, is in the driver’s seat.
CS Lewis wrote the following. “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
Issues of pride and the resultant problems are reflected in story after story in scripture. In the Old Testament, pride was the root cause of the demise of many leaders. Pride was at the core of much suffering. And in the New Testament, specifically it was prideful religious leaders who believed they knew it all that challenged Jesus the most and eventually asked for Jesus to be crucified.
Thomas Tarrants from the CS Lewis institute wrote, “The desire to lift up and exalt ourselves beyond our place as God’s creature lies at the heart of pride…with pride, God becomes smaller and the person becomes larger. The center of gravity shifts from God to the person…They become the center of their world, and God is conveniently moved to the periphery.”
As this same writer points out, pride is the not the same thing as being proud of another, like being proud a child for doing something well. Being proud is all about being pleased about something good and pleased for another person.
With that caveat in mind, the antidote for much of what ails the world is humility. CS Lewis wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility is a fundamental quality to pursue as followers of Jesus. In 2 Philippians we find, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant….and being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
And also from Philippians, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
In reflecting upon this, Thomas Tarrants states, “As we refuse to be preoccupied with ourselves and our own importance and seek to love and serve others, it will reorient us from self-centeredness to other-centeredness – to serving and caring for others as Jesus did. In the narcissistic culture of contemporary America, this is a particularly powerful countercultural witness of Christ’s presence and lordship in our lives.”
As we move into this fall season and as the leaves fall, I invite each of us to ponder, pray about, and explore where we are with humility realizing that Jesus calls us to lives of profound humility. But as we take the life long journey of learning to be humble, let us not be prideful of any progress we make.
We are entering into one of my favorite times of year. The warm days, chilly nights, and astonishing colors are enveloping us all. This Fall I have been thinking about another time a number of years ago when we lived in New Hampshire serving another parish.
My wife Regina and I took a hike up a long, steep and muddy trail on a gorgeous crisp and cool fall day. We were happy, glad to be together, and going along at a nice pace. I took in all of the scenery and each step I took was filled with gratitude for the wonder of God’s creation. But about 30 minutes into the hike things changed.
I began to take my mind off of the trees. I started to think about the slow pace we were walking. I wondered just how long the hike was going to take.
It was then that I noticed that Regina was lagging far behind me. I stopped and waited for her to catch up with me. When she finally did, I said, “If we walk faster, we will get to the top sooner. Why don’t we pick up the pace?”
She then asked me, “Why are you in such a hurry. It is a beautiful day. We are here to hike and enjoy the leaves and what difference does it make when we get to the top?” Although I knew she was right, I huffed and puffed and continued racing up the trail.
I think I reached the peak 20 minutes before she did. When Regina did eventually reach the peak, she sat next to me and together we took in the view of the peaks of distant mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont. And it was then that I said to Regina, “I have come to the conclusion that there are three kinds of hikers.”
“There are those who hike with only the destination in mind. They pay most attention to where they are headed and don’t spend much time thinking about and reflecting on the journey in getting there. Because they are so focused on where they are going, they really miss out taking in what is right in front of them. I am sorry to say that today this has been me.”
Then I said, “There are also those who hike with only the journey in mind. They pay most attention to where they are right at the moment and don’t spend much time thinking about where they are headed. Sometimes they are so focused on taking in what is right in front of them that they lose sight of where they are going.”
“Finally, there are those who hike with both the journey and destination in mind. They pay attention to where they are at the moment and where they are headed at the same time. Not only do they reach their destination, but they take the time to notice what is in front of them on the way.”
As I have thought back to that hike in New Hampshire, I have learned a lot. I have come to realize that just as there are different ways to take a hike in the mountains, there are different ways to live our journey in life. And what we pay attention to the most determines what our journey is like.
Over the course of time, I will have a lot more to say about the subject that follows. It is a topic that many families deal with. It is a reality many in our parish and wider community personally have to live with. It is sadly something that has been on the back burner of most Christian communities of faith, and this is not only unfortunate, but tragic. What I am speaking about is mental health.
I believe it is now time we put mental health care and issues on the front burner of what we do at the Chapel, not only because we are compelled to address a need that is right in front of us, but because Jesus responded to mental health issues throughout his ministry. Such stories in the Gospels may seem hard to find, but they are there, especially if we remember that the language we use now to discuss mental health issues was not the language used then.
Mental health issues and challenges confront most if not all families in one way or another, from substance abuse, to depression and anxiety, eating disorders, disordered relationships, stress, and difficulties in adjusting to changes, including aging, etc.
As a result, members of our team are beginning to talk about how we can move mental health up the ladder of what the Chapel is about. Our focus remains Jesus and worship, but over the years you will note that we have dramatically expanded many programs, including our Stephen ministry program (we now have 19 people providing one-to-one care). In addition, part of our Children, Youth and Family programs are about creating healthy experiences and foundations that counter future mental health struggles.
The point of my letter this week is to share my deep concern and passion about this issue, to encourage our community of faith to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues, to hopefully help those in our community who are silently suffering to come to us, and to make it clear that our purpose at the Chapel is to Love God and Love People (one way we will do this is by expanding what we do to address the mental health needs of our community).
Let’s roll up our sleeves, drop silence and stigmas and hush hush, and together get to work to respond as Jesus does to the often hidden pain that surround us.
Last Saturday was an amazing day at the Chapel as we celebrated Charla’s ordination to be a pastor here at Snowmass Chapel. It has been a long journey for her that demanded tons of work, much prayer, learning about herself, and deepening her relationship with Jesus. That said, her ordination reminds me of something else important for all of us to consider.
A number of years ago, long before I was in ministry, I was stuck in a huge traffic jam. One of the kinds that makes you want to get out of your car and simply walk away. This was not an Aspen traffic jam, rather this was an LA rush hour scene. Something that would make the bridge project in Glenwood Springs look like a bike path in comparison.
Anyway, as cars were merging from 10 lanes to 3, a few folks were kinder about letting others in than some people. I’ll never forget this one guy, he was a real piece of work. I could see him in my rear view mirror cutting people off and pushing his way through traffic. Finally he got next to me.
He blasted his horn in a language that means, “hey buddy, I am cutting in front of you, this is my road.” I looked at him with dismay. As I did, I began pointing to my neck with my index finger. The reason? While I was a lay person with a t-shirt on, the fellow was clearly a clergyman wearing his collar.
What was interesting was that as I was pointing to my own neck, in the the hopes he might remember his collar, he appeared to realize something. He stopped honking. Put his head in his hands. And let a bunch of cars go ahead of him.
I need to be clear that my intent was not to be holier than thou, nor to create shame, but rather to try and bring some levity into the whole situation as everyone on the road needed some perspective, including me. Nor is this story is not about me pointing out the erring ways of a clergyman, as goodness knows I’ve been off base often. Rather it speaks to something far more important.
And that is, if we follow Jesus, like it or not, we all wear a collar. Everyone one of us has been given gifts by God to serve God and God’s people. Said another way, all of us are all called to some kind of ministry.
For some it is ordained ministry. Others are called to serve God through music, helping with worship, Stephen Ministry, teaching, working with teens, and the list goes on and on and on. All of us, whether ordained or not, are servants of God wherever we find ourselves (e.g., on the road, at work, at a store, on a busy trail, etc.).
My hope is that Charla’s ordination will remind each of us that we too are called to serve God in difference-making ways. I pray to that we will look at Charla’s call to ministry as pastor as the opportunity for each of us to re-up our own commitment to serving Jesus wherever we find ourselves.
I really like garages that are well organized. The kind you walk into and there is a specific shelf space for each tool, pegs to hang things on, and work tables that have nicks and dents but are nevertheless all cleaned up.
A number of years ago when I was a small boy, my dad brought home a large metal gray box with small clear plastic drawers. I can’t remember if there were 30 or 40 little drawers, but there were a bunch. He asked for my help in getting the box organized by putting like objects together in each drawer.
Over the years I’ve learned it is pretty handy to go about life as if our minds were a box with separate drawers. I believe that it is healthy to have a mental drawer for work, a mental drawer for activities to do with children, a drawer for working out, a drawer for responding to specific ongoing challenges, a family dynamics drawer, a relaxation drawer, and a mental fun drawer.
Said another way, learning to compartmentalize things like putting like objects into a plastic drawer in a metal box, is a way of living that brings about health, resilience, and greater effectiveness.
But as I think about it, as I study scripture, as I ponder what others with far greater minds than mine have said, there is one thing, I believe we should not compartmentalize. That one thing, worshipping God. You might even say that worship is the box that holds all of the drawers of who we are.
A number of people have said that worship is not something we do, rather it is about a lifestyle. As one person writes, “Early Christians viewed their whole life as being an act of worship, a living sacrifice offered to God.” Another notes, “Worship refers to the way we acknowledge God’s worth; the way our knowledge affects the way we live.”
In the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament we find, “Let us offer a continual sacrifice to praise God.” In other words, we are called to worship God continually, not just on Sunday mornings.
I find the idea of bringing God into every drawer in my life and praising God is each area of my life to be challenging. That said, I find the words of William Temple to be helpful with regard to what we are talking about this morning. William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, which makes his words even more potent.
William Temple wrote, “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by God’s holiness. The nourishment of mind with God’s truth. The purifying of imagination by God’s beauty. The opening of our hearts to God’s love. The surrender of will to God’s purpose, and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.”
Said another way, worship is submitting all parts of our lives and who we are to God in a spirit of adoration and love that makes us selfless. It is in this way we can place worship at the heart of all aspects of our lives.
And so, I end with a question. A question we each are called to answer for ourselves. That question, “How am I going to worship God all throughout this day?” And to ask that question each and every day.
I believe the more you and I engage this question, the more we will find our lives, relationships, and our walk with Jesus fundamentally altered. I think we each will be amazed how much changes when we worship God not just with our lips, but with our lives.
Within the Gospels, there are very familiar stories that generally follow the same theme.
For example, one time Jesus went to a man’s house for dinner. Many of those gathered were disliked, thought to be less than, and were certainly considered to be sinners because of prior and current actions. The most religious people present that night were not happy Jesus would eat with such off track folks, let alone be around them.
On another occasion, some of Jesus’ disciples began to eat. They did not wash their hands before doing so. Some nearby religious leaders chastised Jesus for enabling his followers not to follow strict religious rules and guidelines around food consumption.
Story after story after story in the Gospels, we find a pattern. Jesus does something and the folks that have a problem with Jesus are either religious leaders or just people of faith who claim they strictly live according to biblical laws. People who had a problem with Jesus thought of themselves as religious, faithful, upstanding, righteous, and on the right side of issues.
Those who challenged Jesus the most and in fact were responsible for killing him were religious people that were too certain and too confident about too many things, especially about biblical law. Their certainty and overconfidence not only made it impossible for them to understand Jesus, placed them in opposition to the love of God, but prevented them from following Jesus and building God’s kingdom.
From the beginning of the Old Testament through the New, there is a way of living, an approach to all aspects of life, that God calls us to embrace. And that is humility.
Humility is upheld all over scripture. For example, Paul writes in his letter to the people in Rome, “Do not be wise in your own sight.” In the letter of James we find, “Humble yourselves before the Lord.” In the Book of Jeremiah, “Let the wise man not boast in his wisdom.” And there are dozens and dozens of other examples.
When we are too certain and too confident about too many things when it comes to our faith, we end up getting in the way of what God is wanting to do and we end up following ourselves instead of Jesus. I believe we are called to be confident and certain about some things but that much of what occupies our attention, our actions, and our zeal is in fact better left out of the confident and certain realm.
For example, I am confident that Jesus is God in the flesh, that he died on the cross of our sake, was resurrected on that first Easter morning, and that his spirit, the Holy Spirit is living within each of us. I also believe he actively leads, heals, and shapes us as the years go by.
Over the years I have found my relationship with Jesus has deepened the more I yield myself to him and gain comfort in the unknown because I am confident in Jesus and less confident in what I believe about this issue and or that. I am confident God has it all covered.
In my experience, the more we become confident about more and more and more things, the more we put ourselves at the center of our lives instead of God.
The point, if we want to follow Jesus, we are called, I believe, to attitudinal humility not self-righteousness. Paul warned early Christians about self-righteousness because he knew that the more we make room, more room for people who might be very different than we are, we end up being more faithful than if we do the opposite.
When we are not self-righteous and too certain, we begin to listen far more than we speak. We don’t spew out whatever comes to mind. We are clear about what is central to our faith, but willing to be open to the periphery. We avoid getting into litmus testing people about their faith. We allow God to be God even when it makes us uncomfortable.
Prior to last night, things have been bone dry in Snowmass Village and across the Rocky Mountains. Above average temperatures, intense sunlight, and long daylight hours have wilted plants, turned lawns brown, and trails have begun to look like the Chihuahuan Desert.
The other day, an hour or so before sunset, I took a hike along the southern Rim Trail. It is a great trail with breathtaking astonishing views. As I walked along, I quickly noticed that I stirred up quite a bit of dust with every step. There was so much dust I began to feel like Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoon.
About 30 minutes into the hike, something caught my attention. A magnificent wildflower which is pictured in this e-letter. Given how dry everything had been, I was surprised to see such a beautiful flower. But there it was.
As I thought about being surprised by seeing a flower despite drought conditions, I began reflecting upon the many things that have caught me off guard, the unexpected events that have come into my life, both good and bad. I then thought about God and how in some ways God is much like that wildflower.
Our God is a God who continually shows up in unexpected ways and in surprising places. Sometimes God’s presence is subtle and it can be hard to see God walking right alongside of us. But unlike the wildflower whose existence is transient, God’s presence is not and God is with us regardless of the conditions we are enduring. There is no place, no circumstances, where God is not.
I love the words found in Psalm 139. “I can never escape from your Spirit. I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, and if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night – but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you.”
As we journey through life this week, I pray that like seeing a wildflower on a dusty trail, each of us will encounter God in surprising ways and places. That we will be given the eyes to see God acting through whatever challenges we are faced with. And that even if things are feeling barren, lifeless and hopeless, that we will trust that God is with us no matter what.
There is little doubt we live in a time filled with immense challenges in virtually every domain. Little is easy, much is arduous, and levels of conflict and hostility are extreme. Like the terribly dry conditions in the Rocky Mountains this July, it often feels as if things might just explode. In the midst of such realities, much of what we have known and counted upon is on shaky ground. Not much is certain and social trends are morphing faster than 24 hour news cycles.
Even how people spend idle time is quickly shifting. Service clubs like Rotary often struggle to find members. The numbers of people playing golf, going to movie theaters, taking time to browse in a bookstore or a shopping mall, or taking the time to have lunch during a busy work day is diminishing. And of course, across the nation, fewer people are active in a community faith and not as many folks as in the past are willing to engage in much that requires consistent participation over the course of time, let alone a sacrifice.
In response to all of this, one Christian writes, “if we are going to survive, if we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world.” I disagree with this perspective.
Certainly what I have outlined in terms of our current zeitgeist is difficult at best, Yet I believe as Christ followers we have an astonishing opportunity as we move into the second half of 2017. I don’t believe we are called to retreat from the world, but rather to do just the opposite. This is not the time for us to circle the wagons.
It is time as Christ followers we take our faith and our walk with Jesus seriously, that we keep our eyes on Jesus, and that we follow him out into the world. Jesus was not partisan nor did he drop out of the immense social conflict surrounding him. Rather he focused on what he was called to do which was to demonstrate that God is love, to heal, to bring about justice, to confront misdirected religious folks, to forgive humanity, to offer a path forward, and to initiate changes so the world could begin to look more like God, the Kingdom of God, etc.
We are in dark times. Jesus is the light of the world. As things darken, we have the opportunity to offer Jesus to those around us. The darker things become, the brighter the light of Christ will appear.
In a short weekly article it is impossible to be concrete with how to follow Jesus more fully out into the world. Hence I begin a two part sermon series this week to get into this topic more fully. And, immediately following each worship service we will gather for an informal discussion and Q&A. I look forward to hearing from you on this important topic as well.
That said, the takeaway from this short piece is to invite us all to focus more and more on Jesus, engage more fully in prayer and in our faith communities, disengage from conflict and partisan hostilities, and take the love, healing, forgiveness, and message of salvation out into the world which desperately needs to hear the good news. I pray we will not retreat, but rather engage filled with love for God and for each other.
Manchester, England. The severe famine in South Sudan. Syria. Drug cartels. Gang violence and homelessness. Roughly 10 percent of the population in Pitkin County, Colorado live below the poverty line. Times are beyond tough and as followers of Jesus we have much to do and many actions to take along with surrounding all sources of pain and despair with continual robust prayer.
Yet in the midst of all of this, there are the boundless loving actions people engage in everyday to help out friends, family members, and complete strangers. Indeed life is a complete mixed bag, always has been and will be.
I believe it is essential in the midst of responding to the tough realities that surround us, it is important to keep a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. While humor can be defensive and shield us from pain, it also can be a helpful habit that is not defensive, but rather enables us to continue to respond to the needs around us.
Perhaps for this reason, recently, I have begun to enjoy silly solar powered objects. Like a solar powered Sumo wrestler or a solar powered Einstein. Such objects distract me, lighten my spirit, and foster creative thinking about how to respond to the crises that surround us.
Each of us is unique and therefore what we find funny and humorous will vary between us. That said, I encourage each of us to intentionally seek out and engage humor as a habit of faith. A habit that can energize us to do more each day for those who are hurting. As Mark Twain once said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”