Sunday, April 12, 2020

Struggle and Easter: Understanding Worship In Tanzania

I just finished three months of speaking at churches in the US and a common question is, "what have I learned form the church in Tanzania."

The reality is that there are so many good answers to that question but one thing I talked about over and over again is the worship in Tanzania. The worship in Tanzania is lively, charismatic, deep, and kinetic where bodies lead and bodies follow giving a physical expression of what the spirit is feeling. But what is most amazing about worship in Tanzania is that this lively, charismatic, kinetic worship does not come from a pace of overabundance and joy in the temporal world around us. This worship comes in the midst of challenges and suffering. In the middle of deprivation and mind-numbing struggle. Worship is not a celebration because a celebration is appropriate, but the worship is so powerful specifically because it is not.

There is a patience and anticipation in this worship which I am missing right now. However it is worship which I will be drawing on this Easter. When it seems like death may be closer than ever and its sting is strong. When celebrations of hundreds of thousands gathered together has become a few gathered at home. When presents, and family diners, and community wide Easter egg hunts have become small, maybe ragged, unstocked affairs. When Easter clothes are replaced by pjs.  When the celebration of life is being tempered by the looming economic reality that is the perfect time to remember that the celebration of the resurrection is not just when we have reasons to celebrate, but specifically and even more powerfully when we don't.

So let's take Paul's words to heart from 1 Corinthians 15...

"Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
...But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord. Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, be dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."  

Let us dance, let us sing, let us celebrate, let us lift up praise, and let us continue to labor because the celebration of Easter is that we don't struggle in vain because our God is risen and Jesus reigns. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Barrier No. 7: The Barrier Between the Ordinary and the Divine

Matthew 27: 50 – 54
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that movement the curtain of the temple was torn in tow from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.”

So many of the barriers that Jesus broke down throughout Holy Week were cultural, institutional, or personal. Yet there still remains the mystery of the resurrection. For everything we understand about it there are so many things that we do not understand. A supernatural act that has both supernatural and practical, physical results. And at the end of it all, when it seems that maybe, despite Jesus intelligence, cleverness, and spiritual depth, the darkness wins there is one more barrier to be removed.

The Veil is torn  and we are given the greatest gift of all, access to God the Father, the Creator, the Eternal. Everything that came before becomes encapsulated in this one divine act that separates Jesus from all of the rest of the spiritual teachers, dispensers of wisdom, and miracle workers. Jesus was divine and alone gives us access to the divine.

Be blessed fellow travelers to know that Friday is here, but Sunday is coming…

Barrier No. 6: Internal Barrier of Weakness

One of the most powerful prayers is that of the prayer in Gethsemane, in Matthew 26:36-46. The prayer, similar to a lament, expresses a sorrow which cannot be answered. Yet in this time Jesus also finds a strength that can carry us through the darkest of times…”Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus removes the barrier of a weakened will, of fear, of inaction in the face of sorry. He removes it through a beautiful process of grief, sorrow, acceptance, and submission to a higher calling. Jesus does not remove grief or sorrow of fear, just the barrier that it creates in our lives. Jesus is not unfeeling or reckless or brave without fear. Yet out of loyalty and love to a greater cause, a higher calling, and others over self he is able to push past the doubts and fears that he held. Jesus showed us how to move past those things when we find them in ourselves, and thus have the courage to join in the work of the Kingdom of God, not through our strength, but in our weakness.

Think of a time when you were afraid of something you were called to do or needed to do for others.

Did you power through or give up?

Did you end up with a Garden of Gethsemane moment?

How, in this time of uncertainty, are you submitting to God’s will and seeking strength through submission?

God of sorrow and might. God of grief and peace. God of fear and bravery. We pray for the strength to drink the cup, accept your will, and move forward with love of others in our hearts. May we run this race where ever it may take us.

Barrier No. 5: The Internal Barriers of Hate and Anger

The first four barriers that Jesus removed, allowing us a relationship with God and showing us the path to the Kingdom of God were mostly about the external. Culture, institutional religion, and the rituals and ordinances that can distract from what is truly important. However, as with many things with Christ, he was interested In the exterior and interior, knowing that one without the other is worthless.

During Holy Week in Jerusalem Jesus was not the only active one. Others were actively plotting his betrayal, including his own disciples. Judas plotted to betray Jesus to the officials for 30 pieces of silver. However, a person plotting betrayal for money is not something that should really surprise us. We are a fallen race. What is amazing is how Jesus reacts to it. Just a few verses later Jesus is sharing a meal, a sacred meal, a high festival. Jesus institutes a new covenant in the same space as someone who offered the ultimate betrayal. Jesus in the midst of teaching the disciples service and setting up a new world order had time for another object lesson…don’t let hate and anger win. Be willing to sit at a table and share a meal even with your enemies. Don’t let the internal being any more of a barrier to the kingdom of God then the external. Just as Jesus recently told the pharisees, make sure the inside is just as clean as the outside.

Have you ever allowed other’s actions to control your emotional state?

Have you ever felt betrayed by a fellow Christian and allowed it to sour your relationship with God?

Is there someone even today who you need to forgive, not for their sake, but for yours?

God of mercy, Prince of Peace, please forgive us. Forgive us when we try to find excuses for everything going on inside of us by placing blame on everything going on outside of us. Forgive us when we cause hate and anger in others through our actions and our betrayals. Help all of us, as we contemplate our own roles and own sin that helped place Christ on the cross to forgive others and not allow our own hate and anger to be a barriet to reaching you. Amen.

Barrier No. 4: The Barrier of Idol Worship

It has been pointed out many times that some of Jesus’ harshest words were to religious leaders, and many of those quotes are pulled from Matthew 23:1-39. “You blind fools…brood of vipers…you hypocrites.” These are known as the seven woes in the Gospels and is Jesus talking about how religious leaders, far from making things better have actually made things worse. The crux of this though is found in the first few voices. The religious leaders have made themselves and their trappings into idols, trying to convince people to worship the position or the temple instead of a living God. Jesus points this out in the beginning of the passage of how the leaders liked to be noticed, be given places of honor, and taking converts away from the one, true God.

Jesus in pointing all of this out was trying to remove the idols of worship and religious leaders who had gotten off track, the idol of self from the path of those trying to truly seek God.

How many times have we put ourselves in front of God?

How many times have we looked for comfort or praise instead of God?

How often have we forgiven ourselves for our sins, but not named them, repented from them, or tried to change?

God, we confess that we have put ourselves in front of you. Even as Jesus spoke harshly with the religious leaders of his day, he could speak just as harshly with us. Please remove the barriers that we create ourselves, remove the ways that we get in our own way or the ways of others by making idols of self-worship, of comfort, and of our own self-importance. Remove these barriers from our lives and open us up to the light that we can find when we no longer walk in our own valley, but have found the mountain top of God. Amen.

Barrier No. 3: The Cultural Barrier

As Jesus continued to progress through his time in Jerusalem he had so much to teach. It was the culmination in many ways of Jesus’ three years of master’s classes on God’s Kingdom. As mentioned already, the Pharisees’ spent much of their time trying to figure out how to trip Jesus up in his answers. One area they did this several times was around Heavenly authority. In Matthew 22 they asked about paying taxes to Caesar and about marriage at the resurrection. They were focused on cultural wars of their days…things that would get Jesus planted firmly on the left or right of the day in order to put him at odds with some powerful group. We often do the same thing. We get trapped in this dichotomy that we have to be on one side or the other. Yet Jesus being Jesus chose a third way, he refused to get engaged in the cultural wars and instead reminded everyone that where we really need to be focused was on the eternal. There is an eternal worldview that we need to develop so that we are not embroiled in choosing sides for the here and now, but instead connect directly with God and what God finds most important, something which tends to be much more valuable, compassionate, and sustaining. This does not mean that we are not engaged in social justice work, simply that it is not based on a political worldview, but a Kingdom worldview.

Do you identify yourself as democrat or republican before you identify yourself as a Christian?

Do you orient yourself on various topics based on what the news and media says or what the Bible says?

Do you vilify one side and champion the other instead of staying consistent to an eternal world view?

Are you able to see the third way of Christ, moving past the left or right and focusing on a wider, more generous kingdom then we often think possible?

God of the eternal, the big and wide Kingdom of Heaven, God of what was, is, and is to come. Keep us from getting lost in the mundane, getting sucked into arguments of self-interest, or creating national religions to replace the universal faith in a universal God. As we contemplate the sacrifice made by Christ on that first Good Friday, keep us focused on his grace filled actions and the Kingdom that was open to us on that day. The kingdom that surpasses all of the cultures and kingdoms of this world. Amen.

Barrier No. 2: The Institutional Church

Much of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem was spent dodging tricky questions from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They wanted him gone and he was too good at not being caught, not by being tricky in return, but by staying focused on what was really and truly important. They asked questions about taxes, marriage after death, and what the greatest commandment is. And the reason was that he had upset the balance of power, not by creating an imbalance, but by removing the imbalance. Jesus removed the institutional religion barrier to God by challenging the gate keepers who were in power.

Jesus used the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) to point out that it is not the label you wear as the obedient son, but the actions you take to carry out the will of the Father that is the most important. This means that those who assign the labels are not the important ones, but rather the ones acting in obedience to God who have access to the Kingdom.

For your reflection:

What are the discussions that organized religion is having which has nothing to do with the Gospel?

What are labels (read status or achievements) that you are trying to achieve in order to be accepted by the church? Are these from God or created by a human institution?

Have you ever taken to heart someone else telling you that you are not accepted by God’s Kingdom? What does this reading of Jesus’ teachings do to help you fight that idea?

God, may we understand that you are the ultimate judge and that the church, while the body of Christ, is not God. May our worship be focused on you and may we, like your son, Jesus Christ, illuminate the path towards the Kingdom of God for others instead of focusing on keeping them out. May we the church not be the barrier to people finding a relationship with you, but instead be the example of love that they need to better know you.

Barrier No. 1: The Economic Barrier

On Monday of this week many people read Matthew 21:12-13 which shares the story of Jesus running the money changers out of the temple. Jesus, having entered Jerusalem on Sunday, went to the temple and found people profiteering off of others desire to worship. They were holding God’s house of worship hostage with their practices…so Jesus kicked them out. This is one of Jesus’ more memorable prophetic acts.

We read it as a family on Monday and after just a short explanation our kids decided that it wasn’t fair. Now, you should understand that being PKs (preacher’s kids) our kids are not always found of church. Church services in Tanzania are long and in the US they often have to sit through more than one service on a Sunday morning before getting drug to a lunch meeting. But the idea that a people were getting extorted just to be able to worship God was a raw deal, even to them.

Jesus, in kicking out the money changers, was removing the economic barrier to worship.

For your reflection:
Are there any economic barriers to worshipping in your church? Do people have to be wearing a certain fashion to truly be accepted? Do people have to have a certain income to feel comfortable? Is there a minimum amount of offering that gets you a visit from the pastor? Is there a minimum amount of offering in order to get a blessing from the pastor’s prayer?

Prayer: Jesus, may we be as forceful as you were in the temple to remove any barriers to your people worshipping you. Help us to recognize when we, or our church, are contributing to keeping people away from you and be zealous to open up your way to others.

Breaking Down Barriers Between Us and the Divine

During this, what is for many of us, unprecedented time of change, isolation, and concern one thing for sure is that we are seeing reduced barriers to seeking God. There is less busyness, less distractions, less activity then is normal for our lives. Less spring break travel and spring sports. And while it feels like one of the longest Lenten seasons ever it has also provided ample opportunity and reason to seek out God and His Hope for new life.

Holy Week has always been for me a focus on how Jesus opens up with pathways to God and facilitates us making a relationship with God in heightened ways at this point in his ministry. One of my favorite moments in scripture happens during Holy Week, specifically Good Friday. More on that later.

All throughout Holy Week Jesus focuses on reducing the barriers that keep us from connecting with God. He turns over tables in the temple, preaches in parables, and engages in incredible personal sacrifice all to open up a way to get to God.

Today I will be posting short blogs, and sharing on Facebook for those interested, about seven barriers that Jesus removes for us so that we can better connect with God. Hopefully these will provide some time for reflection and prayer on Good Friday as we move towards Easter and the celebration of life and resurrection that is the pinnacle of our faith.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Foot washing and Wesley’s Three Simple Rules

One of the reasons that I love Holy Week so much is for the many various areas of our faith that we get to reflect on within one week, and the intentionality that I seem to take with this time more than at almost any other time of the year.

So welcome to some of my thoughts and reflections for Holy Week, 2020.

One special Holy Week service was in 2013 when we were into the swing of things in church planting and had decided to focus on Ingrichini UMC to see what we could do to disciple and growth the faith of the members and also help the church to engage with the community. Part of this was traveling to the church (about 1.5 hours away) almost every day of the week doing evangelism, seminars, and special Holy Week services, something still relatively new to that church at that time. The picture is from our Maundy Thursday service where Liz and I washed everyone’s feet as an example of how we can serve our community. I am not sure that we succeeded in our desire to draw the congregation into reflection about how they could do the same. It seemed a little too distracting to have these two missionaries do something so foreign to them as seen by the laughter on their faces. Maybe we should have tried handwashing, more culturally relevant and hey, ahead of its time. Nevertheless it was a blessed week where I think we did succeed in getting the Easter message to the village of Ingrichini, and by us I mean Pastor Jacoba and his church of which we got to be a part of for that week. 

One of the things that I have learned as a missionary is how relevant John Wesley’s General Rules are to service…of any kind.

Rule 1: Do no harm

Rule 2: Do good

Rule 3: Stay in love with God.

I learned during that Thursday service, and in so many other ways, that service to others is not always as straight forward as it would appear, and that is because it is not about us.

The first rule is to do no harm. Which is way easier than it sounds. It is hard sometimes not to jump to rule two and call it a day. However, by starting with a focus on not doing harm it means that we have to step back and think about what we are doing and could it be in any way harmful to someone else. We are required to think before we speak, reflect before we act, engage in conversation and get to know someone well before telling them what we are going to do for them that we simply assume is helpful. We should take a second and make sure that what goes on social media is true, accurate, and will not harm others. This is truly part of our responsibility as Christians.

When I was early, early on in my time in Tanzania I took someone’s advice, who was also not Tanzanian, about how to deal with a staff issue. I won’t go into details, but I hurt someone and consequently their whole family by my actions and decisions. It felt wrong even as I was in the middle of it, but I was following someone else’s directions instead of starting my decision making process by following these three simple rules and finding a less harmful way of getting the same results. It is a time that still haunts me and a decision that I still regret. All because I did not first think to do no harm. We have to make sure, in order to engage in Jesus like service, that we are not going to harm others.

The second rule is to do good. Many people would say that this is the harder one because it requires action instead of just forbearance and maybe they are right. After making sure that we are not doing harm we still have to mobilize. In the middle of COVID-19 there has been much talk about social distancing and staying at home. This is step one…do no harm. But now that some of us have that part down, what are things we can do while at home to do some good? I recently had a relative who shared that since he and his wife don’t need their stimulus check they are planning on donating it to a small business owner who is struggling. Others have been intentionally reaching out to friends and relatives to make sure they are making it in this time of isolation. Another friend has been using his organization in Little Rock to make sure small businesses get the stop gap help they need to survive. Jesus invites us, in the middle of a Holy supper, to serve. We cannot separate our worship of God with our service of others. It is not possible.

The third rule is to stay in love with God. I wish I still had the blog post available, but years ago I wrote about the best advice that Bishop Ntambo of the North Katanga Episcopal area ever gave me. I asked him what I should know as a new missionary and he said, stay in love with the people you are here to serve. It is the love that keeps us connected in times of hurt, pain, frustration, questions, or doubt. I think the same thing could be said about our relationship with God. During a global pandemic there are many questions that are being asked about if this is a punishment or test from God. It has hit so many people in so many places and we are all feeling it. I won’t get into that question right now, but what I will say is that Lent is a good time to be asking this question. Coronavirus hit Nashville the week of Ash Wednesday. The day we remember our mortality. This whole Lenten season has been a season spent questioning our mortality, and consequently questioning God. Yet, this is why it is some important to stay in love with God. During a week when coronavirus seems to be peaking in the US, it is appropriate (though I doubt planned by some divine force) that we are preparing for the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This may be a hard time for some to be in love with God. Feelings of isolation and struggle abound. It is a challenge to count blessings when you are laid off or entering a daily struggle against death for those serving in the healthcare industry. Yet, through all of this it is even more important to be in love with the God of life, because what we need more than anything right now is the hope of new life and resurrection. That while Good Friday is fast approaching Sunday is coming.

So today, as we remember the Last Supper and the command that Jesus gave us to go and serve others. Let’s take Wesley’s three rules and see how we can apply them to our lives today. I think we will find them more then relevant during this difficult time.