April 29, 2008

Doubling My Joy

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery,
by doubling our joy and dividing our grief.
Joseph Addison

Saying goodbye to this kirk and its people has turned out to be much harder than I had imagined.

I always knew it would be difficult. One doesn't put down a hundred months of roots and expect them to turn loose with hasty ease. But what has surprised me is just how strenuous a good goodbye can be, how much it takes out of a person. A colleague of mine recently wrote that "grief is the tax we pay on loving others." That makes sense to me right about now. It's probably why so many people in this life seem to "cut and run," because they intuitively understand that loving and just departures are hard work for the heart.

Still, it is a blessed work. If grief is indeed a tax then it is a levy well spent for me, a privilege upside-down, a measure of the bonds of friendship and partnership we have enjoyed over these years. Truth be told, I am honored to ante up here at the end. After all, my belief is that such bonds not-easily-undone are part and parcel of the gospel.

During my time as your preacher, I have tried to make a business out of preaching that very point: bonds with Jesus Christ necessarily and happily create bonds among his people. You can't have Jesus without his people, and 9 times out of 10, why would you want to? If there has been a text that has guided me in this near-decade theme, surely it has been 1 Thessalonians 2:8—We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. (NIV)

I remember well the first time I became acquainted with this little sentiment, buried in the preface to one of Paul's major epistles. It was in seminary, in an upstairs classroom, around a table with several classmates and a theologian. The topic was "evangelism in pastoral ministry," and I had just been complaining about all the negative baggage the term "evangelism" carried for me at the time.

During my freshman year at a large university, I had joined a Christian ministry group whose favorite activity was to scour the campus dormitories knocking on doors and passing out tracts. I had joined mostly for the fellowship, but was quickly recruited for the weekly canvas. I hated every minute of it, mostly because I never could shake the feeling that we could have just as easily been selling dishwashing powder, or insurance, or drugs. It always felt to me as though Jesus—the sacred and saving Jesus that had been so interwoven into my life since infancy—was simply to us a commodity, one more product to peddle door to door. We'd gather in our monthly meetings and compare numbers, everyone patting themselves on the back for the "incredible witness" they were to their fellow students.

If that was "evangelism," then I had already had enough. But to my astonishment, our theologian—a professor of evangelism, no less—agreed with my assessment. He related his own similar experience from another era, his taking place on a beach somewhere. And when I asked in frustration what the proper antidote to all this was, he pointed me to 1 Thessalonians 2:8. "For Paul," he explained, "the gospel must always be shared in the context of genuine love, amidst growing relationships. We share the gospel; we share our lives. In the most faithful of circumstance, the two always go hand in hand."

I had never had someone put it that way before; moreover, I had never noticed Paul's little litmus test for proper faith-sharing—this little text, buried in the Thessalonian letter. Until that day, I had assumed that one had to throw the evangelism-baby out with the bathwater-experience of my undergraduate days. As such, Paul's expression of affection to the Thessalonian Christians was a Godsend to me. A new light turned on my in my theological head; suddenly I could imagine what, in fact, a robust Christian community looked like: As we share the news of Jesus, we share our lives—and vice versa. To paraphrase Joseph Addison: The grief we lay at the cross of Christ is divided among the saints who bear it with us; the joy we experience in the news of God's Easter-grace is doubled by the gift of sharing it with others. "Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery." Relationships protect the news about Jesus from collapsing into yet another commodity for selling and consuming; the gospel truth keeps our common church relationship from decaying into yet another run-of-the-mill human organization. And so it goes, hand in hand.

In more than 400 sermons over nine years, we've listened together to a lot of Biblical texts, we've collectively covered a lot of holy ground. But this New Testament theme—sharing with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well—has certainly woven itself into many a sermon on many a Sunday. As such, it seems like a fitting place to end.

I want you all to know what an inestimable privilege it has been to be your preacher and teaching elder over these many years, to be a steward among you of the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. But I also want you all to know what a blessing your friendship has been to me and my family—your support, your concern, your responsiveness. On both fronts—preaching and personal—you have doubled my joy.

Altavista Presbyterian Church,

I have loved you so much that it has been my delight to share with you not only the gospel of God but my life as well, and the life of the Hawkins family, because you had become so dear to us.

I could not have said it better myself.

April 3, 2008

Impossible Resurrection

Every now and then people feel stuck. The circumstances of their lives, the sins and consequences of their own actions, or the inflictions of others' trespasses upon them create an impossible, immovable situation. A logjam. A roadblock. A room with no doors or windows – no way out. Stuck. This kind of thing is deadly.

And so the pastoral question arises: Can you imagine any way that God could be at work in this situation? Any way that God can redeem this mess?

Answer: No, I cannot imagine any way out of this. I don't see any way to go.

It would seem to me that for people in that kind of place, Easter morning is a particularly startling and happy occasion. In the most unlikely of ways, God chose to work things out for Jesus. The impossible situation of his death is turned upside by an empty tomb. And once again I am reminded that we belong to a religion whose roots lie in the odd fact that a man came back from the dead. If you are looking for a sensible faith, orthodox Christianity is not the place. Try the Unitarians, because there is nothing sensible about resurrection.

For some, the fact of Jesus' new and different Sunday-morning-life is intellectually too embarrassing to name, or empirically too impossible to believe, or socially too bizarre a thing with which to be associated. Fair point.

But for those of us "stuck" in places of deathly impossibility, cross and resurrection is the very power and presence of God. See 1 Corinthians 1 for more on this.

One theologian describes Jesus' journey to the cross as a walk into a dark room, a room with no doors or windows or perceivable ways out. The room's name is death. He took upon himself the sins of the world and it killed him. We killed him. No more and no less. We get together on "Good" Friday because it's worth sitting for a moment with the hard fact that he died. And for us, no less. (In order to feel the power and punch of Easter morning, perhaps we must pretend for a moment that we really don't know how the weekend ends up – a practiced naïveté.)

He died. And there the story ends.


Impossible story! Dreadful ending.


But then God does an amazing feat. Suddenly – out of nowhere, it would seem – a door appears in this deathly room. An impossible door, but a door nevertheless. It is a door through (not around) death and out to the other side, resurrection life. This same Jesus, dead before, is now restored to a similar yet better life.

"Impossible," you say. Yes. And true. The one true thing, in fact.

So let's be clear. Easter morning is not for the well ordered life. Stay home or go golfing (weather permitting) if your world is already well settled and well managed. Otherwise you'll have no need for a new-life-door and, by default, you'll have no need for Sunday.

No, Easter morning is for the lame, the paralyzed, the broken, the confused, the depressed, the stuck. Easter Sunday is for everyone who cannot see a way out of whatever room holds them captive—including that great big room that holds us all captive, hereafter referring to by the church as "sin." Easter is our morning to entrust ourselves again to following this resurrected Jesus through God's unpredictable door of new and different life.

Or, the put it Paul's way in Romans 6:

That's what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country.

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did.

Blessed impossible Easter. Thanks be to God.