In the presence of Christ

He came into the office talking, and stopped only to take a quick breath, after which he continued sharing the details of his plight.  All was punctuated by pulling up the front of his shirt and revealing the most painful looking herniated intestine that I have ever seen.

Several attempts to direct the conversation and get some sense of what might help stabilize his financial situation only resulted in more details about his circumstances, and more views of the cantaloupe size knot on his stomach.  I wanted to get some idea of what could be done to help him until his disability check started.  He wanted whatever I was going to do to be done right then.

He may have wanted more, but what he got was $25.00 worth of gas.  Back in the day, we used to give folks like him a fill-up.  That policy changed the last time gas prices rose to over four dollars a gallon.  The new policy works well.  I spend almost no time worrying about whether or not someone requesting help deserves it or really needs it.  I would much rather give some who did not deserve it $25.00, than fail to help someone who really needed it because I perceived them to be unworthy of help.

He seemed happy with $25.00 worth of, not gas, but diesel.  I bought him diesel because that is the kind of fuel that one puts in a Mercedes.  Granted it was an old and beat up Mercedes, but a Mercedes nonetheless.  Truly, there is so much story to tell and just not enough time or paper for all the details.

After a quick trip up the street for fuel, I am back in the office reflecting on what just happened.  Without thinking, I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of Matthew 25.  You recall the passage, don’t you?  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and purchase for you $25.00 worth of gas?”  The King replied, “When you bought fuel for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you bought it for me.”  I felt good because I had just done something for the least of these.  I would not have wanted the goat question stuck in my head.  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and not purchase it for you?”  The King replied, “When you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, is when you did not do it for me.”

So I felt as good as you can feel when you buy $25.00 worth of fuel for someone who needs a lot more than $25.00 worth of fuel.  What I did not feel so good about and, if fact, what was a little disturbing to me, was how desperate this man had been.  The man who had reminded me that to help was to help Christ, had been almost frantic for help, and almost overjoyed with $25.00.  He was desperate and frail, and his desperation and frailty quickly reminded me of Christ in the garden praying for the cup to pass; and Christ on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

We like for our heroes to be big, strong and larger than life. We expect them to be able to face down any challenge and overcome any obstacle. Yet our salvation comes not from Christ’s willingness to be a larger-than-life human being, but from his willingness to be a real life human being.  By his wounds, we are healed.  In his brokenness, we are made whole.  It is not his strength that saves us, but with his frail vulnerability that he invites us into the Kingdom of God.  Whether at the manger in Bethlehem, the cross at Calvary, or the fuel pump at Weigel’s, he invites us to embrace him, to touch him, and meet his needs as we experience the power and the presence of the risen Lord.

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Going Global with the Presence of Christ

Do you remember when you were lost, alone and separated from God? Do you remember when the guilt and shame of sin kept even a ray of hope from shining on your life? Do you remember when you were saved, forgiven? Do you remember the joy and the peace, the relief and the release that came from knowing how much God loved you? Do you remember discovering for the first time in your own life that God made a way for you to be accepted and whole, liberated and redeemed?

This week, at the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 16 people were commissioned to go to some remote places on this earth for the sole purpose of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that they who have never heard might experience the same joy and the same grace that you experienced when you first learned of God’s great love for you. These 16 will go to China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Spain, Eastern North Carolina, Chile, Georgia, Haiti and South Africa. They will join with others who have already gone. They go to plant churches, practice medicine, do poverty relief, train local church leaders, teach in universities and seminaries, minister to women and children, and facilitate the transformation of communities. All in all, they go to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, to be the presence of Jesus Christ, and to announce the Kingdom of God.

These people, along with those who have been sent before them, go where they are going on your behalf.  They go to more places to encounter more people than any of us ever could on our own. They go to tell and to live the story of God’s amazing grace for us.

They do a great service for us and for God’s Kingdom.  We ought to be eager to pray for them and to remember them when we are in the presence of the Lord. There names are:

Anna Anderson

Anjani and James Cole

Rachel Brunclikova

Lindsay, Cindy, and Ryan Clark

Mickael Eyraud

Kamille Krahwinkel

Blake and Rebecca Hart

Carole Jean and Jack Wehmiller

Jennifer Jenkins

Mark and Sarah Williams

Our prayers are vital for all those who serve and who are sent; but our prayers are not the only way that we need to support and stand behind them. We also need to share our resources.

At the conclusion of worship services next Sunday morning, we will be receiving an offering. That is our custom on Sundays when we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Normally our offering on Lord’s Supper Sundays is used to meet benevolent needs in our community. Right now, our benevolence fund is adequate for the needs we anticipate until we gather again at the Lord’s Table. Therefore, since the CBF Offering for Global Missions is running about 30% behind where it should be for this time of year, we are going to send our July offering for benevolence to the uttermost parts of the world.

We are accustomed to promoting the Offering for Global Missions and giving to it at Christmas and Easter. Giving to it on the Fourth of July may seem a little odd. Yet, it is altogether appropriate in one sense, because in giving to it, we are extending to those who are still held captive by the power of sin and death the opportunity to be set free. What better way to celebrate the earthly freedom, that has been bought for us by the sacrifice of so many, than to give the gift of eternal freedom paid for by the sacrifice of the One who said, “. . . you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Waiting to Cry

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)

These words were written to a struggling group of people. They were a small group relatively speaking.  Their size does not diminish their faith. Neither does it gain them any standing with their neighbors. They are different from everyone else. They are not like the Jews. Rome has learned to deal with the Jews. These Christians are different. They are pushed to the fringes of society and deprive at times of making a living. They are like persons of Hispanic descent living in Arizona. But rather than producing a document to show they are legal residents, they are invited to worship the emperor Domitian. When they refuse –their lives are in peril.

John writes to them to not provide an escape, but to give them hope. John writing from exile on the isle of Patmos understands as well as anyone that following Christ does provide for way around the harsh, brutal hatred unleashed by the powerful on those who are different from them.  John writes to give courage and encouragement to Christians who are living through a time of great tribulation.

No more hunger and no more thirst are words of amazing comfort to a group of people who have been enduring a place in society where their capacity to provide for themselves and their families is limited by those had the power to gainfully employee them. What do you do to provide food, clothing, and shelter? You get a job. You earn your keep. What if no one will give you a job because you are a follower of Christ?  You go hungry. You watch your family go hungry. It is a terrible kind of suffering.

John says, they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.

You can be certain that if there is work, it is the work that no one else is willing to do. It is the work done in the worse conditions. Under blazing Sun and Scorching heat. But if that is the only work that you can get, you take it gladly.

John says, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat

In the midst of such living—stress, strain, fear, worry—doubts and uncertainty must have arisen from time to time. The tension between keeping the faith and surviving may at times have become unbearable. What to do? Would not life be easier if we just looked, acted, spoke, worshipped like everyone else? What to do?

John says the Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd. The lamb of God who died for you, will be your Shepherd. In your uncertainty, let the lamb be your shepherd. In your doubt, let he lamb be your shepherd. He is the one that will show you the way through this time of tribulation. He is the one who will show you the way to God.  He will guide you to the water of life. Water is life. Then and now, we cannot live without.

John’s vision touches his readers in places where they have very real hurts and constant anxieties. He creates an image for them of a time where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching sun. He writes of a shepherd who was a lamb who will lead them to the water of life.

And then he adds and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. What must that look to a people in the middle of live a trying life? To people with so many reason to shed tears? To a mother struggling to care for her children? To a father seeking to provide for and protect his family? To men, women, boys, girls, families seeking to faithful to what they know of God while they suffer intense persecution?

What does it look like to you? The idea of the God who took on flesh, dwelt among us and died for us reaching down to wipe away your tears, what does that look like to you? What tears would God be wiping away? How did they get there?

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this scene, this notion of tears being wiped away grabs us. Because we have tears, we cry, we weep. Maybe not today, maybe not right now but we have done so and we will again.  John knows that about the people that he is writing to just as we know it about each other. We do not escape from our trials or our tribulations. For that, John gives us an image of our tears being wiped away by God.

No more tears. In a world that so often has so many reasons to cry, to sob, to weep, how outlandish is it to speak of time when God will wipe those tears away once and for all. In a world crowded with people just waiting to cry is possible that there will come a time when no more tears will be shed?

I am leaning on the fence next to the track waiting for my son’s event.  I am not alone, other spectators are behind me in the stands, some have found a place along the fence, others are moving from one place to another. There is much activity and excitement. The day is absolutely gorgeous.

In the midst of all that activity, I notice that someone is standing beside me. He speaks, “I am not supposed to be here.” “No?” “I am not supposed to be within three hundred yards of this place.”   I want to say “Hey, sorry man, but I am off the clock.” “I am not here working, I am here watching.” I don’t say that. I don’t say that because there is something in his voice when he speaks. He is not just speaking, he is exhaling words. He is speaking because he cannot keep from speaking. He is hurting. I can tell by the sound of his voice. He is about to cry.

So, I listen. They are separated. His wife made allegations. There is a restraining order. She could not make it to the track meet. His daughter called him and asked him to come. That is why he is here, even though he is not supposed to be here, not supposed to be within three hundred yards of her.  He does not cry out loud, but I can see the tears in eyes.

That is the world in which we live. There are all kinds of people out there just waiting to cry. So when John talks about God wiping away our tears we perk up. We know tears. We know the pain, the hurt, the disappointment from which they spring.  A time and place when God will wipe them away once and for all no more tears seems rather delightful, rather joyous. A time and a place that we would like to get to. The resurrection makes such a time and such place a real hope.

Birthday Surprise!

A long time ago I celebrated my eighth birthday.  I remember nothing about it.  My only real certainty about whether or not I even had an eighth birthday lies in the simple chronological truth that one cannot arrive at forty-six without having, at one time, been eight.  What happened the day I turned eight?  I have no clue.  Did I get presents?  Most likely I did.  What might they have been?  I have no idea.

What I am fairly certain that did not happen on the occasion of my eighth birthday was that those celebrating with me were asked to bring canned food and non-perishables to help replenish our church’s food pantry.  In fact, I am pretty sure that the church that my family attended during that time did not have a food pantry.

So this week a mother of a boy who just turned eight sticks her head into my study and requests my presence in the fellowship hall.  In the fellowship hall, there is a round table loaded with canned goods and non-perishable food items.  The children who celebrated Breton Stanley’s eighth birthday brought these items to his birthday party in lieu of gifts. As I looked at the food on the table and realized how it came to be collected, I was both impressed and grateful.  I was impressed that Breton’s friends had contributed so much food, and grateful that it would be available to hungry families who come to our church seeking help.  When I heard Breton talk about the food that had been collected, and heard in his young voice a sense of understanding about what the food would mean to those families in need,  I realized that the food collected was more than just an idea that Mom and Dad had suggested.  He understood that thinking of others and acting on their behalf was a way to give expression to what he had learned of Jesus and His teachings.

Breton's birthday gift

In talking to his mother, I learned that Breton was not alone in putting his faith into action. Other children had done likewise at their birthday parties. Hayley Lovingood had collected items for Family Promise, and Leo Jaramillo had collected food for Second Harvest at their parties. Who knows what others have done?  What children!  What parents!

It is of little consequence, all these years later, that I cannot recall a long-ago birthday present. Yet, what might it mean years and years from now that these children have been shown how to give mercy and to show kindness?  What might it mean that they understand that to have regard for the least of these is to have regard for Christ?  What might it mean that they have learned early to put hands and feet to their faith?  How many lives will they touch as they show compassion to those in need and invite others to join them in living for Christ?

This is happening right before our eyes.  The Bible is being taught and learned.  Step by step, and day by day, boys and girls are living lives shaped by the teachings of Jesus.  It is cause for great hope.  It is more than that; it is also a testimony to the reality of God at work in our church.

Every day there are events taking place in our city and in our world that cause us to question, to have doubts, and perhaps even to feel fear.  When we see our children putting their faith into practice in such a meaningful way, it should be a significant reminder that we are not alone.  With their faithful acts of kindness, they are not only reminding us that the light of Christ is still shining, but they are also becoming part of the reason that darkness cannot overcome it.

A Hungry Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The memories of long ago gatherings of family, food, and football at my grandparents’ house are some of my fondest.  These days we go to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to give to our children their own memories. This year, we are breaking our tradition of frying the turkey.  My brother-in-law wants to try to smoke it.  I feel a new memory in the making.

Recalling fond memories and making new ones is not all that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  In fact, memories take second place to the reminder that Thanksgiving gives to us to be, well, thankful.  While every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks, this holiday gives us a chance to slow down and take a whole day to reflect and be grateful.  Nurturing gratitude in our lives moves us toward a more mature walk with the Lord.  Gratitude in the face of adversity often indicates a life that is resting in God’s grace.

Some of you may remember me telling the story that my Uncle John told of my grandmother making biscuits and gravy with water and flour for supper when he was a boy.  She did that because that was all that she had to put on the table.  He will always remember that time, and I will always remember his telling of it.  For me, it is a story, not a memory.  I have no memory of times being that hard.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I recall that story.  Rather, it comes to me, not as if I have to exert any effort to think of it.  When I think of things I am thankful for, I cannot help but be grateful that the biscuits I ate at grandmother’s table were always made with milk — buttermilk if she had it — and she often did.   Even more so, I am grateful that my children do not have such memories.

Not all children are so fortunate.  A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that a record number of families had difficulty obtaining sufficient food at some time last year.  The number of people living in U.S. households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million people in 2008.  That is 13 million more than in 2007.

On a global scale, the number of hungry people is staggering. The United Nations reports that more than a billion people face starvation.  That number represents an increase of about 100 million people over last year.

In the face of such need, I am grateful not just for the basic blessing of food and shelter, but also for the many people and organizations who work every day to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger and hunger-related illnesses.  Many of those people and organizations are motivated by their commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings.  Some of those people are missionaries that we support in this country and around the world.  They do what they do as an expression of their faith in and dedication to the life and teachings of the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto to me.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember and to be grateful.  It is also a perfect time for followers of Christ to recommit themselves to living, giving, and following so that the least of these might also have reason to be thankful.