An Untrue Romance

A true confession: I am guilty of romanticizing the early church—a lot, not a little. Long ago, during the Jesus Movement, I fell in love with the first five chapters of Acts. (My favorite band was even The 2nd Chapter of Acts). I loved the promise of Pentecost and power one high—the miracles, and the extraordinary love for one another.

When I read of Pentecost and the weeks following, I thought, “Wow, they have both holiness and power!” The “both” caught my attention because I was a 4th generation member of The Church of the Nazarene. Their distinctive doctrine focused on the power of the Spirit to entirely sanctify us and remove our bent toward sin. When I looked at the love and unity of the early church in Acts 2, I saw holiness.

Partly because of the Jesus Movement, I noticed that there wasn’t just purity of heart in Acts 2, there was power. In fact, when talking about Pentecost, Jesus told His disciples “you shall receive power when Holy Spirit is come upon you”. Power! In the Nazarene tradition that power was understood as sanctifying power—the strength to live holy lives. But it was hard to ignore that in Acts, the power to heal was an important engine for church growth.

Most importantly, I made a fundamental shift in my hermeneutical approach to Acts. I had always approached Acts as merely a history of the early church. But what if, I asked, Acts was not just an account of what was, but a picture of what ought to be. What if Acts is normative and not just descriptive? As a thought experiment, I removed from Acts everything that was an expression or a result of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Almost nothing was left.

I quickly made the power and purity of the New Testament Church the goal of my heart, and even my life. The power emphasized by the Pentecostals and charismatics would, I thought, be joined to the holiness message of the Nazarenes. We could reject the false choice between the fruit of the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit. We would seek to express both the character and the ministry of Jesus. With another former Nazarene, I helped start a small gathering of the church dedicated to being as “New Testament” as possible.

It turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. Much prayer did not turn into much power. Purity of heart was more elusive than one prayer of consecration. Dying daily to self, it turned out, was daily. And then there were, over the years, some scandals, some divorces, and some fakery among the groups with which I fellowshipped.

So, I have returned to Acts with different eyes—perhaps eyes both weary and wary. I have read chapter six where the Hellenistic Jews and the traditional Jews were complaining of discrimination in the care of widows. Wait! Are these the same folks who in chapter two had all things in common? Who in chapter four “were of one heart and soul”? I had seldom thought much about this eruption of division. I had usually skipped to the next part of chapter six that tells of the deacon, Stephen, who performed “great signs and wonders among the people.”  Stephen’s story, and Phillip’s in chapter eight were proof that the power of the Spirit was not just for apostles or some “apostolic age.”

Even more disconcerting was the strife between Jewish and Gentile believers. Both, I assume, were baptized in the Holy Spirit, so why didn’t that instantly bring unity and revelation of God’s will? Why did Paul have to warn the churches against the Judaizers in so many of his letters? Paul romanticized nothing.  In a farewell address to a gathering of elders, Paul urges them to be on guard:

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among, not sparing the     flock, and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:29—30

Today such talk would make Paul of little demand as a speaker at pastor conferences.

And there are also the little endnotes in Paul’s letters where he mentions those causing problems for the church. And all of II Corinthians where Paul is forced argue for his apostleship. And even the split between Paul and Barnabas over whether to take Mark with them.

Many years ago when my father was pastoring a Nazarene church, his patience was sorely tried by some mean and petty board members who, none-the-less, claimed to be saved and sanctified. He called his father, who also had been a pastor and asked, “Dad, what does sanctification do for a person?” My grandfather, who had seen Nazarenes from the earliest days of the denomination, simply said, “It helps.” In my youth I would have protested, “It should do a lot more than that!” Now, I think, “We need all the help we can get.”

One of my favorite stories from Acts was the story of Peter being delivered from prison by an angel. This is a great text for sermons on the power of God to set us free. We are also told the church was earnestly praying for Peter’s deliverance, so it is also a good text for sermons on the power of prayer. What I usually skipped was what came a couple verses before in Acts 12:1—2:

            It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church
             intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with
             the sword.

For obvious reasons, this verse doesn’t inspire many sermons, which is okay. It is healthy to hope for angelic visitations and earthquakes like the one that set Paul and Silas free in Acts. However, we must include the murder of James in our story of the early church. I am sure the church prayed for the deliverance of James just like they did for Peter. This verse, I am afraid, is also a lesson about prayer.

 I am still committed to seeking the purity and power of the New Testament church, but I am more open to structures that try to mitigate the problems the church has always faced. However, if the cure for problems in the church is denominational structures, we must make certain the cure is not worse than the disease. The structures must be a means to an end—not an end in themselves. And certainly, we have seen among both Catholics and Protestants that church structures can hide and even enable predatory leaders. Sadly, denominations that grow out a move of God, years later oppose God’s next visitation.

And yes, I still believe that holiness is the answer to many church disruptions, feuds, and troubles. Leaders living a crucified life would end many of the problems that plague the church. Hower, a careful reading of Acts and Paul’s epistles reveals there will always be scandals, disappointments, false teachers, and exploitive leaders. So I am not singing, “Give me that old-time religion”.

My personal answer comes from John 21:20—22. Jesus, appearing after his resurrection, had just told Peter, “Follow me.” Peter looks around and sees John and asks Jesus, “Lord, what about him.” Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Like Peter, I have often asked God about this leader or that leader, or even why God healed one person and let another die.

Jesus’ answer is always the same, “Follow me.” It would be nice to do this alone in a cabin near an Oregon beach. But every time I start following Jesus, I end up back with His people. I always run into His command that we love one another as He has loved us. He loved us when we were still sinners, when we had failed and betrayed him. He washed the feet of all his disciples, even Judas.

I choose to follow Jesus through all the troubles of the church. I accept that God’s field is sown by His good seed and that the tares were sown by His enemy. I leave the tares to God. I am not going to abandon God because of what His enemy has done.

Many fail. Much fails. But loving God and His people never fails to be the right choice, even when our hearts are broken. If the church is reduced to ruins, you will find my tent pitched in the rubble.

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Mark Preaches

I am an English teacher, so this last year I have been surprised by my many opportunities to preach. I have been preaching once a month at the little Presbyterian church for about a year and half. In the last few months, I have filled in once at the Nazarene Church in Coquille and once here in Myrtle Point.

I blame God for this. I would like to think that my preaching skills, keen exegetical insights, and pastoral wisdom were so needed that God flung the door open for all this preaching. But I am not that stupid. I know God gave me the opportunity to preach out of the depths of His mercy. He knows I need it.

It is, perhaps, a severe mercy. I have been preaching during the darkest and most trying year of my life. I preached the week Peter died. I preached at his funeral. I continue to preach despite feeling like an impostor and some days like a toxic waste dump.

Much of the grace flows while preparing my sermons. Although many preachers recycle sermons, I preach a new sermon every time. This is not a boast, just a preference and a result of having the luxury of preaching once a month. Each time I must bend my heart toward God, spend time in the Bible, and wait until something surfaces that is preachable.

And once the sermon topic appears, I live with the Scripture for at least a week, sometimes two. I first ask what it means for my life to conform to God’s Word and God’s Spirit in this area. For instance, my last sermon was on draining the swamps that fuel outbursts of anger in our lives. How can I preach about anger without looking at my own anger at the unfairness of life? How often has my sense that life is unfair become an accusation that God is unfair? Preaching God’s grace in overcoming anger was God’s tender mercy toward me and my own struggle with anger.

In the very act of speaking God’s Word, the power of His truth is released into my life. For most of my life, I have not preached, but I have often taught a Sunday School class or led a Bible study. Even speaking God’s Word in a conversation is empowering. I am not saying this release of power is automatic, I am sure two-faced hypocrites can preach and be untouched by power of God’s Word. But for those whose hearts are turned toward God, whether in devotion or desperation, speaking God’s Word releases grace and power.

For me, preaching has been life-support—a feeding tube of sorts—because I can’t swallow much else. Preaching has revealed God’s loving heart toward me—His lovingkindness everlasting.

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Collateral Damage

There are not enough analogies to describe the death of a son, but in some ways, it is like a bomb. The grief is a crater out which one climbs, if able and lives, if not.  But within the blast radius, there are other casualties and more damage. Some things are left structurally unsound—even unsafe. Many guides to grief cover the familiar stages of grief, but most are less helpful with collateral damage. I am sure my current assessment of the damage is preliminary, but here are few things shattered by Peter’s death.

Hope this side of the grave. I hold tightly, even more tightly, my hope in Christ, resurrection, and eternal life. My hopes, however, for the time between now and the grave are grim. I am ready to be surprised by joy, but it would be a surprise. This is not a complaint; many suffer more and worse than I will. I have been and still am blessed in many ways, but I have no hope that the path between here and the grave will be anything but miserable.

This doesn’t mean that Teckla and I will be unable to enjoy small delights and moments of joy and laughter. The other day Teckla was trying to share her diagnosis with people at the church, but she couldn’t remember the right word. We laughed, and then I whispered “dementia” in her ear. The crater is that we no longer hope for the day when Peter will become the man of God he was meant to be. The collateral damage is that it is hard to pray for deliverance from anything else like Teckla’s dementia. And, of course, Teckla’s dementia has many implications for our immediate future.

I have not decided if my grim outlook is bad or good—or just an expression of my tempermant. I quit teaching sooner than I expected, and we will be selling the house and giving our dog away. We have hauled much to the dump and given away much. Everything feels like loss. Even memory.

But this is still true. I have never been able to out-give God. Again and again, I have made sacrifices—jobs and homes—only to discover God giving me far more than I sacrificed. I suppose the difference now is that I am at an age where I am uncertain if the “far more” is now or in eternity. I may be surprised.

Faith for intercessory prayer. My zeal for praying for people has been blasted. Teckla and I prayed for Peter so long, so often, without seeing any result. Some would say this is because of Peter’s freewill and others will say it is because of God’s sovereignty. Whatever the case, I have no heart for petitionary prayer. Sometimes I just feel that people will do what people will do. Other times, I feel that God will do what God will do. Either way, why pray?

Of course, the simple answer is because, over and over, God says to ask. I don’t have a problem with prayers of praise and adoration. I worship whole-heartedly, though often with tears. But asking God is hard because asking seemed to do so little for Peter. After a person dies, the exhortation, “Hold on! Believe in God! The answer is on the way!” seems hollow and unintentionally cruel.

My answer has been duty, perseverance, and endurance—not concepts popular on the teacher/preacher circuit. I wish I prayed with greater expectation—with real faith and greater energy. But I pray because I ought. Because God is good. Because He commands me to pray.

It may be that the damage done here will be repaired with some answered prayers. Or it may be that perseverance in praying even when hope is wounded is just what God wants. I don’t know.

A personal relationship with God. This sounds worse, I think, than it is. I still have a relationship with God and my commitment to God is body, soul, and spirit. I would like to say that through these last four difficult years, God’s abiding presence has encouraged and strengthened us. The truth is that I could not sense God’s presence or hear him saying anything about the things that were breaking our hearts. It is certainly okay for God to be silent and invisible, after all we walk by faith, not sight, but it is not what one would expect of a personal relationship. A friend who is invisible and silent when you are going through the worst time of your life is not a very helpful friend.

I am sure God was and is there. It is not simply that He did not answer questions about Peter. He said nothing about him. There was no conversation despite the testimony of many fellow believers about all the conversations they have with God.

It also is true that my faith that God will never leave me or forsake me can be a comfort. But unless His presence is made know in some way, it is simply my faith that is comforting me—not God himself. Experientially, God’s absence and invisible presence are not much different. I have felt, and still feel, alone. By faith, I believe I am not. Again, it is right to walk by faith, not feeling—but this does not make for a personal relationship.

So, I don’t know if my relationship with God is damaged. Or if the real damage is to the language I, and many others, use to talk about that relationship. As much as I love, and have even taught on, the concept of friendship with God, I am not experiencing it. Nonetheless, I have the warmest regards for God.

The explanation for this lack of personal relationship could simply be, “It’s you, Wilson!” Some would say, “God is talking to you all the time. You simply aren’t listening. Humble thyself and hear the word of the Lord!”  Others would point out that God speaks through the Bible, and you just need to get into the Word. All this may be true. But I have taken time to listen, and I have stayed in God’s Word and yet that personal, conversational relationship with God is missing.

Hearing God. Because we had, we thought, so many promises from God concerning Peter, it is easy for us to wonder if we heard God rightly or were victims of our love and wishful thinking. Before he was born, Peter’s birth grandmother told us she believed Peter would be adopted by someone in Kansas City and would become a mighty man of God. When he was one, I wrote a prayer for him and pushed into a crack in the temple wall in Jerusalem. I felt strongly that God had a purpose for him in Israel and with the Jewish people.

A few days after Peter was born, I held him in my arms. As he opened his blue eyes for the first time, the first words I spoke were, “Feed, my sheep.” From that moment in the county hospital in San Bernadino, I believed that in one way or another God would use Peter to shepherd the lost and scattered flock of God. But after all his struggles with addiction and all the vices that came with it, and then his death, it is hard to believe we heard God rightly. I now hesitate to claim any promises except those given to all believers everywhere.

Yes, it is possible, maybe even probable, that all the promises concerning Peter were only invitations that Peter was free to refuse or accept. After all, God promised to make Israel a light unto the nations, but often they rebelled or refused. So maybe my prophecies and promises weren’t simply fantasies spun out of our hopes and love for Peter. I am, nonetheless, damaged here. Only rightly hearing God concerning something can repair my faith in my ability to hear God.

Faith in the power of God. I certainly, in the abstract, have faith in God’s power, but with Peter and many others, it seems darkness is winning. I see more drifting away from God than coming to God. I see families broken, saved addicts returning to addiction, and large numbers of young people sprinting from God. The church appears to be in full retreat. I have prayed for a visitation of God in most of the places I have lived, but not much has happened.

Peter’s death feels like such a resounding defeat. I would like to see the victory of people surrendering their lives to Christ, chains of addiction broken, the lost and wandering finding their true home in the arms of their loving Father. Right now, I feel like I am cringing before the enemy, afraid for whoever else might be snatched away.

The damage done here is serious and needs repair. My only answer is to hold fast and keep advancing by speaking God’s love and His power to deliver from sin, Satan, and death. But I am weary. My voice unconvincing.

This is my preliminary assessment of the collateral damage—I suspect there is more. It is also possible that the damage is less than I think. I am probably still seeing the ruins from the bottom of the crater.

I should add, however, in every way the church, the body of Christ, has been the hands and feet of Jesus ministering to us. Through them, God has been a present help in our time of need. So, even though much has been torn down, my belief in the importance of community as a means of grace has grown stronger.

I wonder if much that we hope to experience individually as believers, God means for us to experience only in community. I am certain that is where God will rebuild what can, or ought to, be restored.  

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Cancer, Tolerance, and Love

Teckla and I both battled cancer recently—a battle that resulted in the surgical removal of the cancer. In both of our cases, a lot of work was done to determine whether and where we had cancer. Teckla became something of pin cushion as she had multiple biopsies on both breasts. One of the first tests showed no cancer in one breast, but she had a doctor who was suspicious of some dense tissue. Eventually, we discovered cancer in both breasts. She had a partial mastectomy on both sides. It went well.

Like most people I hate the C-word. I would certainly have felt better if no one had told me I had prostate cancer. My doctor seemed to think the truth was more important than my feelings. I was not greatly comforted by the compassionate and loving bedside manner of any of our doctors. But I was comforted by their competence and knowledge, and even more by their willingness to tell me the truth—even when the truth was “I don’t know.”

I could have insisted that the doctors be more tolerant of my rambunctious cells, intent on doing their own thing. Cancer is such a judgmental word. Wouldn’t it be more loving and accepting—more tolerant, to call them cells that march to the beat of a different drummer? They are cells simply expressing their inner essence and exercising personal autonomy. Why must we demand conformity? Why this hatred of diversity?

And of course, being told I had cancer made me feel sad and unsafe. Truly loving doctors would have kept this truth to themselves. After all, we all have our own truths, so why must I be oppressed by their “truth”. My feelings, no matter what the facts may be, are what matter most. God is love; therefore, love is God. All I really needed from my doctors were some good vibes, but instead they told me the truth.

I am glad they did. I am thankful for their intolerance. I am thankful for new technologies that allow better biopsies and more accurate judgments about how aggressive a kind of cancer is. I benefited from a new prostate-cancer-specific contrast used in my scans. A post-surgical biopsy showed that the surgery had clean margins—meaning it is likely that they got all the cancer. They were so intent on getting the cancer out that they cut out good tissue too. Our surgeon was careful not to be inclusive.

As believers we are called to speak the truth in love—not as self-righteous prigs—but as humble and forgiven sinners. Foremost, we are to speak the truth of Jesus, who forgives our sins. But there is no glorious message of forgiveness unless we tell truth about sin which like cancer eats away at our soul. The grace that cleanses us flows freely when we admit we are unclean. God is love, but we can’t turn that upside down and make a god of every disordered passion. Love is not God. And genuine love is only experienced in surrender and obedience to the commands of Jesus, who said if you love me, you will obey my commandments.

I should add that we did have a bad experience with the first doctor we spoke to about Teckla’s cancer. He was abrupt, irritated that we had questions, and came across as arrogant. We sought out another surgeon, and we found one who took a full hour to answer all our questions. He gave us more information about the staging of the cancer and the benefits and drawbacks of different surgical options. He didn’t talk less about her cancer; he talked more.

Truth need not be sacrificed to love. Lying to us about our cancer would not have been loving us. Lying to people about their sin is not loving them. At its best it is sacrificing long-term health for short-term comfort. At its worst, love that refuses to speak the truth is self-love—caring most about people’s approval and about posturing as compassionate.

We see truth and love perfectly one in Jesus. When the woman caught in adultery is brought before Him, He writes in the dust and then stands and says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first throw a stone at her.” One by one, they all leave. Jesus asks her with great tenderness, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.”  Jesus then says, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and sin no more.” And had he been one of my doctors, he might have said, “I will see you at your six-month check-up.”

I think one of the main complaints against Christians using the S-word like Jesus did is that we are so often like the elder brother is the parable of the prodigal son. We are quick to identify prodigal son’s sins of the flesh, yet blind to our sins of the spirit—pride, resentment, bitterness. Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for tithing their mint, dill, and cumin. He rebuked them for not also doing justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They were bad oncologists, picking at a cancerous mole and ignoring the huge tumors in plain sight.

It is only as we abide in Christ that believers can walk faithfully in love and truth. We need his life flowing through us to keep us from pinballing from truth to love. As we abide in Him, He will live in us.

Only his Spirit can empower us to speak the truth in love, and love in truth.   

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Russian Coffee, Opal, and Sticks

I think most boys are pagans. I was, despite being a preacher’s kid. Although our family went to church twice on Sunday and to Wednesday “prayer meeting”, I could barely wait to get out of Sunday clothes and into my jeans and tee shirt—my pagan vestments.

I, of course, was not making sacrifices to Zeus. The only altar I had been to was the one in the old sanctuary at Walla Walla First Church of the Nazarene. I do not remember much about the evening service when I decided to follow Jesus and “let Him into my heart”. I remember not wanting to go to hell—but not in any frightened way. I was more afraid, I think, of the evangelist’s enormous eyebrows which rose and fell like judgment day. I was nine and not particularly introspective, but it was obvious to me, and probably everyone, that I needed a Savior. I am glad I knelt at that altar and have been kneeling ever since.  

But in many ways, I remained a pagan.  My worship was climbing sycamore trees, catching snakes with Kirby at the Walla Walla River, building forts, and playing war until dark. I have not been good at much, but I was good at being a boy. I was a happy heathen who loved all things natural and wild. Lacing up my sneakers on the first day of summer was my pagan festival.

There were a few of what I call “golden moments” of pagan bliss. Once after a long summer day playing with Kirby at an abandoned mill site with a pond and irrigation ditches, I sat alone on plank over a ditch. Kirby had headed home. My bare feet swung slowly in the water; overhead hung the sweet and heavy blossoms of a black locust tree. The fragrance, the cool water, and the golden light of a setting sun quietly overwhelmed me. I decided to never forget the moment. I have no religious or secular language to explain the experience. I need none.  

I was blessed to be the youngest of three boys, and thus benefited from my parents’ benign neglect. They let me wander the streets, creeks, hills, and river around Milton-Freewater. It helped that my best friend, Kirby, was at home in nature. We spent hours catching crawdads in irrigation ditches. At the river we looked under logs for shiny black salamanders with yellow spots. I had a free-range boyhood.

I did not bother to see any spiritual or moral lessons in nature. If, as Wordsworth argued, nature is God’s book, I wasn’t reading yet. I was pagan in the sense of loving nature for itself. I loved the sunlight filtering through the sycamore trees more than the light pouring through stained glass. I loved the green, glassy smoothness of the opal Kirby and I dug out of the hillside that overlooked the town. It, of course, wasn’t really opal—but that was what we called it. My joy was noble hedonism. I loved summers– sun on my skin and the ratcheting call of a kingfisher shooting low over the river.

As a boy, I did not connect my love of nature with a creator who after making all things, saw that it was good, “very good”. But I certainly agreed that all things were good. For a while, I had a mayonnaise jar with a pet black-widow. I regretted punching air holes in the jar after I saw the empty egg case and tiny baby spiders spilling out the top. Like the Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I blessed all things, even the “slimy things [that] did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.”

Recently I have run across remnants of my paganism. Teckla and I have been slowly sorting through everything as we get ready to move back to the Midwest where my sons and other grandchildren live. The necessary sorting, and the discarding, is tedious and sometimes painful. Especially puzzling are the items best described as talismans: things potent, precious, and useless.

I have, for instance, a can of Russian coffee that I found as a teenager while hiking the beach south of Bandon. There is magic and mystery in the can’s Cyrillic letters. The coffee was still dry inside, so I think it must have fallen off Russian fishing boat off the coast of Oregon. I happily imagined Russian fishermen laughing and drinking coffee. It also reminds of happy hours wasted beach combing.

I still have a couple pieces of the green “opal” Kirby and I dug up. He too, I recently discovered, has kept a piece. The stones are still potent sixty years later. I even have the green canvas “army bag” in which we hauled away our treasure.  I will take both to Kansas City.

I have a small wooden folding stool. It is the last of a set of camping stools my parents had. It summons for me the magic of sitting with my family around a campfire at Cape Perpetua, listening to the creek that tumbled over the rocks in the darkness. The stool is branded with the burns of roasting forks we used to poke the fire.  

I also have hiking sticks. I have one from Kansas City made of hawthorn cut near the Blue River, the first place I hiked with Peter. I have one made of Sitka spruce from the tree near Cape Perpetua where three generations of Wilsons have camped. Two of my sticks are from Euphoria Ridge—one Oregon crab apple and the other madrone. And then there are the sticks I cut for my boys when we camped—with the date and their initials carved into each. No one needs this many walking sticks and none have the powers of Gandalf’s staff.

These talismans are perhaps remnants of my paganism, but they are more.  Each testifies to a life blessed by God—a life full of evenings by a campfire, summers in Milton-Freewater, hours wandering Oregon beaches, and long hikes through coastal woods and meadows. It is all good because God is good.

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The Cosmic Groan

I know. Cosmic Groan would be a great name for a Seattle grunge-band. I used it, however, as the title of a sermon I preached at Camp Myrtlewood. Tall Douglas firs, and myrtle trees towered over the small outdoor chapel. My cement pulpit was mossy. From a perfectly blue sky, sunlight slid gently between the needles and leaves of the trees. There was no better setting for a sermon on how creation sings God’s glory.

Instead, I talked about the futility of creation and the cosmic groan of creation eagerly waiting “for the revealing of the sons of God”.  Paul certainly believed creation sings of God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). In Romans 8, however, Paul speaks of creation being in slavery to corruption. With the fall of man, all creation fell. And according to Paul, all creation groans until the day when Christ returns, and we are redeemed body and soul.

The idea that nature isn’t perfect is unpopular. It is contrary to the gospel of Animal Planet and Disney. However, on this topic popular thinking is often entangled in several self-contradictions. The first is the assertion that even though humans are part of nature, they should stop doing what comes naturally. While rejecting “speciesism” that would value the human species more than other species, many insist humans become caretakers of creation—a responsibility we put on no other species.

Another contradiction is seen in the animal rights movement. Many argue for a cruelty-free ethic for humans while acknowledging predation and the food chain is perfectly natural and indispensable in nature. Veganism is sometimes embraced because of these ethical concerns. Yet, avoiding cruelty is not a concern found anywhere in nature where many animals are slowly eaten alive. How does one stand for animal rights on the veldt? Yet, our very discomfort with predation and cruelty might testify that Paul is right about creation being subjected to futility and in slavery to corruption.

Our longing for a different kind of nature supports the idea that creation is fallen. We often seek, in vain, to be perfectly at home in nature. As a boy, I loved the picture of Tarzan, Jane, and Boy in the old black and white movies with Johnny Weissmuller. Talking to the animals, swimming in the leech-free water, picking fruit from the nearest tree all seemed like paradise. Best of all? No school!    

Throughout literature, even much modern nature writing, there is a longing for Eden. Instead, we get intestinal parasites, mosquitoes, and a multitude of biting and stinging creatures. Here in Oregon my efforts to be one with nature have often ended with huge patches of running sores where my bare arms and legs brushed poison oak. In the Midwest chiggers and ticks were a pestilence after hiking through glorious patches of prairie.

The arguments for the corruption of creation are endless, but Paul’s point is that when we groan, all creation groan with us. We do not groan alone. We groan together because so much of our life is still bound to a body that rots and rusts. In the first section of Romans 8, Paul argues gloriously for the life of the Spirit—the Spirit of God that indwells us and testifies that we are adopted. Paul declares we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Then Paul brings us back to earth by acknowledging that we are heirs if we also suffer with Christ. He says we groan for the redemption of our bodies because thus far we have only the first fruits of the Holy Spirit. This treasure and small measure of Holy Spirit dwells in earthen vessels easily broken.

The older I get the more I groan. My groaning from a sore back and knees is punctuated with snaps and pops of arthritic joints. (In the woods, I can’t sneak up on anything.) But I also groan because of grief and loss: the potential wasted, the dreams strangled in their crib. And then there is the philosophical groan over the emptiness of human ambition and the pointlessness of so much—the groan of Ecclesiastes—vanity, vanity, all is vanity.  

The glory and goodness of the gospel is that even though our groans erupt from weakness they can rise to God in power. Paul declares that “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Scholars debate whether this is the Spirit praying through us or praying for us, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit translates our groans into prayers that align with the will of God (v. 27). It gives wings to prayers and pain too deep for words,

The Holy Spirit keeps our groaning from becoming grumbling. The godward groan is not just for the mess that is, but a bone-deep cry for all to be made right. We groan because we and the world were created for something more beautiful—something eternal and incorruptible. We groan for our true home and family.

It may be too much to argue that we, creation, and the Holy Spirit groan in three-part harmony, but we know God hears us. Therefore, we hope for the day when our groan is answered by a trumpet, the hills clap their hands, and all creation rejoices to hear again the voice of the Creator blessing all the earth.

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If Only

A couple weeks ago Teckla and I decided to take Ari on a hike along the bluffs north of Shore Acres. The trail meanders through shore pine, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. It looks out at the distant horizon where the blue of sky meets the blue of sea. The distant barking of seals and sea-lions drifts over the waves and the cries of gulls and oyster catchers echo off the cliffs. Waves curl and explode against the rocks in fountains of white glory. The beauty is stunning.

It is also dangerous. Although fences protect careless hikers in some places, there are long stretches where a wrong step could kill you on the rocks far below. Therefore, it seemed prudent to have a talk with Ari, who is seven, about the dangers. We explained, “We want to take you on this beautiful trail, but we must be able to trust you to obey. This is a place where disobedience could seriously hurt or even kill you.” I then added, “We can have many adventures together if I can trust you to obey.”

Perhaps you have seen a parent get a child’s attention by kneeling and placing a hand on each side of their face. In this moment God seemed to do that to me and say, “Mark, that is true for you too. If I can trust you to obey, we can have many adventures together.”

I am at an age or place in my life where kids and dogs inspire most my sermons, so the next Sunday I preached at the Coquille Church of the Nazarene on “Obedience: The Great Adventure.” I took as my text Deuteronomy 28 where Moses tells the Israelites all the blessings they will experience and all the adventures they will have if only they will obey God.

Of course, the big lie, as old as the serpent’s lie in the garden, is that obedience is joy-killing. It is the slander that God and his commandments are withholding something good and exciting. Believing this lie, many of God’s people choose wandering in the desert over the adventure of taking the promised land from giants. In the church, this often means defining obedience as a list of the things we don’t do. It is a kind of dull legalism that takes no risks and goes no further than the edge of the Jordan.

On Sunday mornings when we were praying for the morning services, my mother often prayed, “Lord, give us radical obedience.” It is something we should all pray. Many, I think, have abandoned the church out of boredom—not unbelief. Radical obedience can restore the adventure of listening to God and following Him with unflinching faith. The church, paradoxically, can become a safe place to have dangerous adventures. It can be base camp for ascents into the mountains of God.

Ari did great on the hike, so there will be more adventures. What dangerous, thrilling, and beautiful trails might we hike if only God could trust us to obey?    

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“Can Jesus Carry Me?”

While hiking on trails along the bluffs of the ocean, our grandson, Ari, lifted his arms and asked, “Will you carry me, Pa?” He is six and about sixty pounds and my knees are bad, so I said, “Sorry, you have gotten too heavy, and I have gotten too old.”

He then asked, “Can Jesus carry me?”

I quickly said, “Yes,” just because it seemed so wrong to say no. After all, we have all those paintings of Jesus carrying lambs. And we have the popular story of footprints in the sand with the lesson that where there is only one set of footprints is where Jesus carried us. There are hymns too. 

Ari stopped in the middle of the trail, lifted his arms, and said, “Jesus, carry me.” I don’t know if he was being funny or really expected Jesus to grab him. I kept walking and mumbled, “Jesus probably wants you to use the strong legs He has given you.” Ari’s hands came down and he quickly caught up.

Either Ari is profound, or I have the spirituality of a six-year-old (or both), but Ari has put his finger on one of the complex problems with the language we use to talk about God. Often our language is imprecise, sometimes metaphors taken too literally, sometimes literal stories made too metaphorical.

I often find this is true about the exhortation to give all our burdens to God. Like Ari, I just want to stop in the middle of the trail and say, “God, I give you all these burdens to You. I will let You write the checks, call the doctors, get social security, sign us up for new health insurance, and repair the car.” Often the exhortation to give our burdens to God is followed by a warning not to take the burdens back once we have laid them at the feet of Jesus.

But taking back our burdens and getting busy is exactly what we all must do unless we end up like Ari, stuck in the middle of the trail waiting for Jesus to carry him. I have heard eloquent sermons on not being anxious and casting all our cares upon the Lord. After one of these, I asked the pastor, “How do you avoid being anxious about your children and grandchildren?” He bluntly answered, “I don’t know.”

I have usually not been anxious about myself or my finances. I am confident in God’s care for me even though I believe His care does not deliver me from all the evils of this world like sickness, wicked people, and my own foolishness. But I do not have the same freedom from anxiety for family and friends who might step out from under the protection given by God’s love and wisdom. 

Throughout his letters, Paul expresses concern and sometimes even fear (Galatians 4:11) for his spiritual children. In Romans 9:2 Paul says he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for his Jewish brothers who refuse to believe Jesus is the Messiah. In II Corinthians 11:28 Paul speaks of facing “daily the pressure of my concern for the church.” His concern for others seemed to be a calling, a gift, and yet still a burden—one that could not be given away. I suppose we could rebuke Paul for not giving all his burdens to the Lord, but such a rebuke feels foolish. I distrust any idea that makes me more spiritual than Paul.

Paul, who embraces “unceasing anguish,” also tells us in Philippians 4:7, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice.  Paul urges, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In I Peter we are told, “Cast all your anxiety on Him [God] because he cares for you.” I have tried but failed to do this well.

For about the last four years Teckla and I fought daily to keep our son, Peter, alive. He was in and out of ICU’s all over the state—sometimes intubated and near death. We could not, like Ari, stop in the middle of the trail and say, “Carry me, Jesus. Here, you call the ambulance this time.” In anguish we often debated when we should over-rule Peter and call the ambulance before he was willing to go. This was not a decision we could hand-off to God. Although I have clear conscience concerning Peter, he might be alive if I had called the ambulance the night before he died instead of the next morning. In addition to all this, of course, was our concern for his spiritual health. Were the knots in my stomach and emotional exhaustion because I had “taken back my burdens from the Lord”?

We prayed constantly, but our prayers seldom lessened our fears for Peter. In prayer we gave God our burden for Peter, but it did not lighten our burden. Although I have only gratitude and thanksgiving toward God, it is also true that we put Peter into God’s hands and Peter died. Yes, it could be that Peter’s death was somehow the working out of some divine providence and wisdom. Or in the war that God wins in the end, this may have been victory for the enemy. Whatever the case, there is still something complex and paradoxical about asking Jesus to carry Peter and Peter dying. I hope in the end Peter, like Ari, threw up his hands and asked Jesus to carry him.  

So what then? First, as Ari discovered, our language about being carried by Jesus and casting our burdens on Him is metaphorical. What we often mean and probably even what Scripture means is that God gives us the strength to carry our burdens. We are given the assurance we are not alone and that He is at work seeking to save, heal, and help those we love.On occasion, there may be a supernatural intervention like the one in Acts when Philip was transported by the Spirit from one place to another, but usually obedience is a long slog.

Second, God calls into the paradox of constantly rejoicing in our salvation and constantly sorrowing for those who are lost. We are set free from anxiety about ourselves, so that we can fully give ourselves to the care of others. We lay down our burdens so we can share in God’s. We are invited, even privileged, to join in the sufferings of Jesus who was a man of sorrows because of the depth of His love for us.

I still pray that Jesus will carry Ari—and all my other wonderful grandchildren. I also ask God to strengthen their legs and hearts to run after Him all their days. 

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Climb, Climb, Up Sunshine Mountain

The blessings of God are fresh every morning, but these days so is the grief. Teckla and I are sorting out stuff and hauling things to the dump, so every day we come across things that belonged to Peter: clothes, guitars, drumsticks, even an accordion he hadn’t yet learned to play. Waves of sadness and loss wash over us as we realize there is no reason to keep most of this. Pieces of our hearts are carried with each load to the dump.

This daily grief numbs us to much that should delight us. As is often the case, one of the points of my last sermon pierced my heart. I had asserted that one evidence of loving God is how much we delight in Him, how much we enjoy his presence, treasure His nearness. Yet even as I proclaimed this, I realized I had lost my delight in God. I could follow and obey commandments—another sign of loving God—but my soul took no delight in Him. There was no dancing—just one foot in front of the other. I was and still am a spiritual trudger with an empty heart.  

And as is often the case with those who grieve, I have struggled to find delight in ordinary things. Peter’s death seemed like such a resounding victory for the enemy, I have had no fight left either. I should be tenaciously fighting for the ordinary joys of life but feel too exhausted. I have hope, but it is all anchored in Jesus on the other side of my grave. Such hope, although theologically sound, has not helped me face each day with joy and purpose.

But I have been helped by two unlikely allies—Christian mystics and a Vacation Bible School song from my earliest years as a child in the Pendleton Church of the Nazarene. Many Christian mystics believed that our love of God was like ladder where our contemplation moved from earthly things to heavenly things until our soul could delight in the contemplation of God himself. This idea simply recognizes that delight in creation should lead to delight in the Creator, and delight in the Creator should lead to His Word. Delight in His Word should bring communion with His indwelling Spirit until God Himself is our delight.

Peter’s death knocked me off the ladder.  I feel like a spiritual stroke victim learning to walk again.  I have found myself at the bottom of the ladder, so I have been learning to delight in small things. As unspiritual as it may sound, I have delighted in potatoes from my garden, catching salamanders and crawdads in the creek, the smoothness of a rock on the beach, and voice of many waters in the roar of the ocean. A step up has been delight in the smile and hugs of grandchildren—such an irresistible delight. I have made, as St. Ignatius urges, my five senses a way of climbing from grief to joy.

And in all this I found myself singing the old VBS song, “Climb, Climb, Up Sunshine Mountain” even though my face is not “all aglow”. I am climbing up to “where heavenly breezes blow”. I am turning from “sin and doubting” and “looking to God on High”. It is indeed a climb, and I am out of shape, but wildflower by wildflower, potato by potato, smile by smile I am learning to delight in God and feel again the winds of His Spirit.  

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Can We Dig Him Up?

Ari asked this as we stood at the edge of his Daddy’s grave. Peter’s gravestone had not yet been placed, but I knew he had been buried right next to my brother, Stanley. This was the second time Ari had asked. Several weeks ago, Ari asked, “Is it legal for us to go dig up dead people? Can we dig up my daddy, your mommy and daddy and give them hugs?” I explained the whole thing about the body being in the grave and the spirit being with Jesus, but it is a lot for even an adult to grasp, let alone a six-year-old.  I also assured him that digging up dead people was not legal.

Ari’s question is a good one. Despite all our talk of death being a natural part of life, death feels wrong. The loss of those we love remains a tragedy, and death, an enemy. I still miss my mother and father. I have especially missed having them pray for me and my family in the midst of heartbreak. I miss their wise counsel and deep compassion.  When I see a new bird or unusual butterfly, I miss being able to share that with my oldest brother, Stanley. It all feels wrong. And it is. Like Ari says, we should be able to hug them.

Scripture is on Ari’s side. Paul makes clear that death is a result of sin (Romans 5:17). In I Corinthians 15:26 Paul declares, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” Death is an enemy— and not an enemy we are commanded to love. We were created to be eternal. Love is made to endure. We should not comfort the grieving with assurances that death is natural and, as Disney preaches, is part of the great circle of life.

Here in Oregon the push to celebrate death as a natural part of life is especially strong and widespread. It is driven by a concern for the environment and our healthy celebration of nature. Oregon is offering more ways to compost the body or even wrap our remains in the roots of tree-ball, so we “live again” through the tree’s growth. I don’t object to any of these practices, and I think it wise not to plant people filled with toxic embalming fluids. But none of this should diminish our instinctive conviction that death is wrong and an enemy.

Even though believers are not comforted by the naturalness of death, we are not without comfort. As believers in Jesus, we believe not only in resurrection but in reunion. Recently, Ari and I sat together in our little leaky hot tub talking theology. It is one of the few times he is still enough for a conversation. Ari asked me when he would see his daddy again. I explained that when we die, we go to be with Jesus and that I believed his daddy was with Jesus. His response was, “I want to die, so I can go see my daddy.” I said, “Me too!” However, I went on to say when we die is up to God.

Ari got excited and his eyes big when I explained that someday Jesus was going to return with all those who had believed in him and that we would all be together. On that day, I explained, God would make all wrong things right and all ugly things, beautiful. On that day all death would end and there would be hugs. With some sadness and a lot of wisdom, Ari said, “I want that to happen soon.”

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