It’s hard to check our social media or open a newspaper these days without seeing extreme violence here in our cities and overseas in war zones. On top of it all, we can’t turn on the television or radio without seeing or hearing all the domestic political campaign messages—complete with the hateful and combative language that seems to come with them lately. For faith communities, trying to make sense of it all has become a weekly, if not daily, endeavor.
It’s not our imagination. Times are a bit trying right now. Even while enjoying beautiful fall weather and unseasonably warm temperatures in some areas of the country, we are reminded that many coastal cities, who were affected by Hurricane Matthew, are trying to dig out, put their lives back in perspective, and assess long term damage. Certainly, we want to help the natural disaster survivors with donations, just as we want to understand viable solutions for stopping the violence in the Middle East and our cities here. Whether we want to focus on it daily or not, we want to see positive results in the end for our own country. But, we can’t do it all, and we can’t be sure of whether or not we are doing the right thing all the time. Is prayer enough for the hurricane victims? Is participating in political banter at work appropriate? Is shutting the television off when we see yet another bombing or military strike somewhere in the world a callous and insensitive thing to do?
Psalms 46:10 tells us: “He says, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." (NIV) We can take comfort in this somewhat because God is telling us that He has our backs. He has everything under control, and in time, the world will be restored to what we think of as “normal” or settled. However, by “be still,” I don’t think that He means we should do nothing. We have to stick to our Christian values, and we have to understand our role in this often-tumultuous world around us. God always asks of us that we do our best—that we stick to our core values—and that we use His Word to inspire and edify others. During difficult times, this is no different. In fact, it should be amplified to meet the need in the world and in our communities.
Experts tell us that in times of stress or uncertainty, we should maintain our health and wellness, we should surround ourselves with friends and family or other people who hold similar values to our own, and we should pray, worship, and engage in church fellowship like we always do. Currently, it’s evident that everyone is searching for answers and comfort. With looming elections, escalating violence here and overseas, and natural disasters that threaten the most innocent of citizens, adhering to prayer sometimes seems the only thing we can do. I urge you all to see the importance and power of prayer.
Psalms 62:5-6 says, “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (NIV). A lot of people talk peace and serenity or salvation in the face of terrible things. We must always remember the power we each have to stand by our convictions, live by example, pray, spread God’s Word and His love, and remain strong in the face of all that challenges us.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (NIV)
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (NIV)
Recently, the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C. The opening ceremony was a much touted event with heads of state, musical performers, celebrities, and other well-known people in attendance. Residents of the District of Columbia were warned weeks in advance of street closings, the museum communications department was tasked with notifying the public of the timed passes for entrance that would be required the entire weekend of the museum opening, and security was intense because the event was extremely high profile. Because the museum was stocked with priceless artifacts, and so many people would be in attendance, it was apparent the eyes of the world would be on 200 15th Street NW, Washington D.C. on the big opening day of September 24th, 2016.
The eyes of the world are still on the museum—a beautiful lattice-work building that now graces the National Mall—and all that it means to the history of our country. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s Founding Director has said of the museum, “This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.” The goals of the museum are, in part, to show the resiliency, the optimism, and yes, the spirituality of all Americans in relation to their experiences with culture and ethnicity in this country and in global forums. After all, we have all come to this country from a myriad of backgrounds, and as quarrelsome and difficult as we can be sometimes, we all live, work, play, and worship together as Americans.
The country is often divided. We are a combination of many religions and cultures. We have survived blame and persecution of one another, and we have experienced camaraderie and support when outsiders attack our integrity or our strength. The duality makes us diverse and resilient. The National Museum of African American History and Culture works to remind us of that. It reminds us that no matter how different we are, albeit our rocky pasts, we are one under God. Each exhibit forces us to recognize the biases we feel, and challenge those beliefs to eliminate the suspicion and blame we sometimes feel toward those who are “different” than us.
It is easy to forget the struggle, to forget that, at one time, African Americans were turned away from lunch counters, buses, public pools, and schools, and not afforded the same basic rights afforded to white Americans. And, it might even be easy to forget that, at one time, the thought of having the first African American President of the United States speak at the opening of such a museum would have been an impossible achievement, an event that many people thought they would never see. And yet, here we are. Our Princeton-educated First Lady, Michelle Obama, an African American woman with multiple degrees, a successful law career behind her, and influence that goes far beyond the White House, came to Pittsburgh to speak a few weeks ago, and it was “standing room, sign up now or forfeit your spot” only. She spoke on behalf of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to secure the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. These are exciting times. Yet, they are also trying times, because for all of our advances—culturally and politically—we are still embroiled in figuring out our relationships to one another as different races, cultures, and religions living in one country.
So, I challenge you all to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Educate yourself. Challenge your biases. Remember that our differences are what make us unique and “stop passing judgement on one another.” Build your fellow brothers and sisters up and “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
1 Peter 4:8-9
Above all, love one another deeply, because our love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (NIV)
As the leaves start to change and fall this season, I find myself reflecting on the year thus far and what’s to come. I start to wonder: did I follow my New Year’s resolutions? Did I accomplish everything I needed to to make 2016 the best it could be? We are about to enter our busiest season: the holidays. Full of fall revival services, bountiful food, gift giving, celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the welcoming of a new year, there is no doubt that this season also means chaos and stress. We love our celebrations, but what about all of the planning that goes into them? The last-minute errands we have to run, trying to find the perfect recipe or the perfect present, gathering together families that don’t always get along perfectly—it can all be a bit much. Add in the volunteer opportunities, decorating, the Christmas concerts and plays, and our otherwise normal daily routines, and it can be hard to catch your breath. But it’s important we don’t let this special season pass in a blur; we need to reflect on our experiences and find our peace so we don’t get lost.
Before the more recognized holidays begin, we have a few that occurred the last couple weeks that are a little lesser known: International Day of Peace and National Good Neighbor Day. Each year on September 21st, we celebrate International Day of Peace. According to The General Assembly of the United Nations, the day serves as a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” Though this day has passed, I think it is crucial we all remember the reason we celebrate that day, and carry it with us not only through the rest of the season, but each and every day. Remember that we are all children of God, created to serve a specific purpose. Take that with you when you’re shopping on Black Friday and a fellow shopper or worker upsets you. Take that with you when you’re at work and a discussion becomes heated. Remember that as you hear about the heartbreaking tragedies you see on the news. Remember the importance of peace. And most notably, take peace to heart for yourself during this chaotic season. Take a moment to breath, reflect, and give your thanks to God for His bountiful blessings.
Just days ago, on September 28th, we recognized National Good Neighbor Day. I know, this sounds like just another made up “holiday,” like “Make Up Your Own Holiday Day” or “National Popcorn Day.” You might be wondering why I think National Good Neighbor Day is notable. I invite you to return to the verse I mentioned earlier from 1 Peter 4: “Above all, love one another deeply, because our love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (8-9, NIV). Of course, we love when we have good neighbors. We feel safe; we don’t have to awkwardly avoid them on our front porches; we have someone to keep an eye on things when we’re out of town. But most importantly, we need to be good neighbors ourselves, offering hospitality without ill will. And this idea fits perfectly with the feeling of peace that came from celebrating International Day of Peace. Peace and hospitality go hand in hand, especially in a season where greed can be just a little too prevalent.
So as you find yourself in the midst of celebration, remember to stop and take a breath and find your peace. Share your peace with others, and “love one another deeply.”
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.
Last week, the fall season officially began. We are not too far now from the leaves changing their color and the air taking on that autumnal cool as we continue steadily towards the end of the year. Hard as it was to believe in the middle of those long, hot days, the summer of 2016 is now nothing but a memory. In such moments, as the transience of time plays to the tumbling from the branch of those colorful leaves, it can be easy to get caught up in the great impermanence of it all: as the Book of Common Prayer puts it; or as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:5, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”
But, as easy as it is to see change and loss in the end of the hot summer months, there is, in fact, hidden beneath, a hint of God’s promise of eternity. The cycle of this change, after all, is permanent. “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever,” we learn just one verse before in Ecclesiastes. Genesis 8:22 teaches us that. “As long as the earth endures,” the cycle of seasons, of life itself, will not end. And God will exist well beyond even that. God has given us the regular diversity of the seasons to at once appreciate our impermanence on earth and all the consistency of his promise of eternity in heaven.
Every year, around this time, we know we will have the great fall harvest to look forward to. We’ll have pumpkin pie and warm apple cider. Part of God’s promise is to ensure these changes occur regularly. The harvest is always a realization of God in the Bible. In Matthew 8:37, the Lord says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
It’s easy to see why this symbol so spoke to those who put down God’s word. The harvest is the fruit of labor, the benevolent sign of time and change. God is offering us the harvest of heaven, if we are willing to go out into the field for Him. God is offering the fruit, but we have to reach for it. We know the harvest is plentiful, but, unfortunately, few are willing to be workers. The truth is, following Christ requires work. It requires discipline and devotion throughout all the seasons of our lives. The harvest makes it all worth it, but some people just can’t hold out that long, they can’t take the long view, and so they miss out on the reward.
When we consider life from the perspective of the ultimate harvest, we can see that life is change only when we view it from our limited standpoint. From God’s angle on things, everything is eternal and consistent, and all leads towards divine reward. To Him, the seasons are just ticking seconds on the clock. But the clock remains the same, the time is always right. And it is always counting down towards the end He desires.
We have to dedicate ourselves to attempting to look at life from this more removed, long-distance thinking. As imperfect creatures, we’ll never truly be able to comprehend all that God sees, but we can learn to take comfort in the glances we can appreciate. We can also learn to better place ourselves in His hands, confident that what is perhaps confusing in the short-term of our transience is necessary in His eternity.
Such perspective also gives us the comfort of knowing that things must happen in their place. To repeat another verse from Ecclesiastes (3:1), “there is a time for everything.” Just as it is pointless to demand spring at the start of fall, so it is fruitless to demand a certain change in life before God is ready to deliver it. The positive development of life towards the divine and the joyful is there for all of us, if we are willing to follow His Word, but it is not for us to push things forward. God has all the perspective in this relationship. Permanence and paradise are in His hands.
Think on all this in the coming weeks as the leaves take their new color. Life is full of temporary moments and change, but God is the promise of permanence, so long as we are willing to take up His plow when we are called, and to appreciate change for all the signs it offers of God’s true infinity.
We are often asked to use our gifts from God to do His work. Most of the time, we easily accept these challenges. Other times, we are a little unsure of our ability. 2 Timothy 4:2 tells us, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (NIV). We can preach and spread the word that we know, but even pastors are intimidated at the prospect of attempting to encourage or inspire others to do the same. Such lofty goals are sometimes only met if we tap into what we have been taught about “edification” and its role in the church and as part of any Christian’s goals in ministry. Edification is, of course, the instruction and the consequential improvement of someone—morally, intellectually, or spiritually—so that he or she is uplifted and, yes, inspired. In the New Testament, there is an actual term assigned to edification as a concept, and that term literally translates as “building a house.”
When we are asked to expand or build God’s Kingdom, we do feel that we can handle the task. Yet, when we have to check progress on whether or not we have truly brought people into the fold or moved them to do the same type of evangelism that we attempt, we fall short. In Timothy, we see clearly that we must be patient, and we must use careful instruction. We also must be comfortable correcting others and encouraging them. In short, to build God’s house and lead others to His Kingdom, it takes tenacity and confidence.
When we plan special events at the church, and when we participate in community outreach, we have to remember that the most important component should be the salvation and the systematic lifestyle change for those participants. We should focus on leading them to understanding, embracing, and spreading the Word of God, thereby expanding His Kingdom beyond the initial scratch made by the interaction at the event.
In other words, we can welcome people to the church, and we can advocate for the Word of God and His Kingdom, but we have to edify and evangelize those with whom we come into contact. Heed the words of Mark 16:15 – 16, “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned'” (NIV). Go out and preach the Word of God—convince others to expand His Kingdom—but remember, in order to lead, we have to commit to changing and edifying those with whom we interact.