“Why Won’t Jesus Heal Me?”

healingI was trying to help one of our new members choose a Bible verse for her baptism.  We were at the computer in my office, typing some of her favorite words into an online concordance to see what would come up.  That’s when she asked me:

“Why won’t Jesus heal me?”

“What?”

“In your sermon on Sunday you were talking about all these people Jesus healed.  I was just wondering why he won’t heal me.”

She told me what she was dealing with: not cancer, not any other kind of terminal illness, but chronic pain and some other problems that had plagued her for years.

“Jesus seemed to heal everybody back then,” she said.  “Why not now?  Why not me?”

So I told her what I often tell people when they ask me that question.  I told her that Jesus’ earthly ministry involved a lot of “show and tell.”  “He was showing and telling people what the world will look like when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” I said.  “He was rounding up recruits for the Kingdom by showing them how good things will be when that day comes, and by telling them about a world with no more sighing, no more crying, and no more dying.”

“But of course he didn’t heal everybody,” I said.  “He healed the people who could get to him, the ones who crossed his path.  He was moved with compassion every time he saw someone in need.  But even then their healing was temporary.  All those people Jesus healed eventually died.  It’s what happens to all of us in the end.  So you have to ask the question: If we’re all going to die anyway what’s the point of living?”

“Right!  What is the point?”

I went all the way back to something I had learned in seminary: I told her about Irenaeus.

“Who?”

Irenaeus was one of the early church fathers, and he thought that this world—which is so full of joy and sorrow, so full of sickness and health, so full of better and worse—was the perfect place to grow up.  He called it ‘a vale of soul making,’ and his hunch was that you need a place like this—a place where choices have consequences, a place where life is often a struggle—to make a soul.

“For example,” I said: “I go to the fitness center a couple of times a week and one of the ways I get stronger is by lifting heavy weights.  I could lift light weights, or no weights at all.  That would be easier.  But I wouldn’t get stronger.  The only way I can do that is by lifting heavy weights, the ones that push me almost to my limit.

“If you never had any hardship in your life, if you never had any pain or struggle, life would be easier, but you might end up soft and flabby—spiritually speaking—and maybe that’s not what God wants for us.  I don’t want to blame God for our suffering.  We live in a broken world and we are the ones who broke it.  But it may be the kind of world that gives our souls a good workout, the kind of world that makes them stronger, so that when we stand before God someday and he asks, ‘What have you got for me?’ we can say, ‘This!  This beautiful soul: refined by fire, shaped by suffering.’”

She was thoughtful after that, taking it all in.  I said, “I know that’s not a perfect answer.  Some people seem to have way more than their share of suffering.  Some people seem to have almost none at all.  But if we stop blaming it all on God and instead say, ‘This is the kind of world in which a soul can be made,’ then we might start paying more attention to our own soul making.  We might even say, when we are straining under the weight of incredible challenges,

“I feel my soul getting stronger.”

“I love you!”

the-shackoctaviaLast Monday was one of those days.

It started just after our weekly Pastoral Ministry Team meeting, when someone told me that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care for the robe I had been wearing in the pulpit (see previous post).  I shrugged it off as one person’s opinion but then, later that afternoon, got a long email from a former deacon chair who felt the same way.  Although he was very respectful and his points were argued from a theological standpoint, they left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nobody really loves criticism.

So, at three o’clock I was gathering my things to go to Starbucks, where I typically begin my week-long sermon-writing process, but I wasn’t feeling the energy I usually feel for creative work.  I decided to answer a few phone calls first and one of them was from a television viewer who had asked if I could go by and visit his wife in the hospital.  He hadn’t told me which hospital, so I called him for details.

He said she was in Sheltering Arms in Mechanicsville, a long way from my office on Monument Avenue, but he would really appreciate it if I could go by.  And then he said, “We’ve been married for 66 years.”  And that’s when I realized this was an act of love.  His wife was in a rehab hospital.  He didn’t know if she’d ever come home.  He was feeling helpless when he had this thought:

“Maybe the preacher would go and see her.”

Thousands of people tune in to our broadcast each week.  I certainly can’t respond to every request.  But I was able to put myself in this man’s shoes on Monday, and realized that if it was my wife in the hospital I would want the preacher to say yes.

I didn’t make any promises on the phone, but as soon as I hung up I knew I was going.  I got a little turned around at one point and ended up driving four miles in the wrong direction.  I knew at that point I wasn’t going to make it to Starbucks that afternoon.  But I did eventually make it to his wife’s room, and her face lit up when I walked in the door.

“It’s the preacher!” she said.

Her husband wasn’t there, but we had a good, long visit, and I was grateful for every minute.  Her name was Mary, my mother’s name, and it turns out she was born in the same year, almost the same month.  We made all those connections and I said, “My mother is in a nursing home in West Virginia.  It’s a three-hour drive each way.  I don’t get there nearly as often as I would like, but visiting with you is like having a visit with her.  Thank you.”  She smiled (a beautiful smile) and said she was honored.

On the way back to my car I was crossing the parking lot when a woman going the other direction suddenly stopped, looked at me, and said, “I love you!”

I was a little surprised.

She said, “That didn’t come out right.  What I mean is, I watch you on TV every Sunday and I love your sermons.”  I said, “I think I liked it better the first way.”  We both laughed.  I asked her name and she gave me a hug and then we went our separate ways, but I got in my car thinking the whole visit had been a gift from God.

Years ago I learned that whenever the work of ministry began to take its toll on me (and it does; believe me) the best thing I could do was to get in my car and go and visit someone.  I remember sitting on a church member’s front porch years ago, drinking sweet tea, and realizing that I was the one being ministered to.  Ever since, I’ve tried to overcome the “blues” of ministry by going to see someone who needs a visit, and remembering why I answered the call.  And every once in a while God shows up in the person of a complete stranger, shouting at me across the parking lot:

“I love you!”

 

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The photograph above is of Octavia Spencer, who played the role of God the Father (“Papa”) in the film version of William Paul Young’s “The Shack,” and who bears a superficial resemblance to the woman who said “I love you!” in the parking lot.

Disrobed

Robe and StoleIt started innocently enough.

Ralph Starling showed up on Pentecost Sunday without his red tie (I had encouraged everyone to wear red on Pentecost, especially those who were leading in worship) and I said, “No problem.  You can wear my red stole.”

I had this beautiful handmade Pentecost stole, with “tongues of fire” on it hanging up in my closet.  It was made for me by a woman in Texas who does this kind of thing as her specialty.  I love it, but I don’t get many chances to wear it as the ministers at First Baptist typically wear robes only on special occasions.

So Ralph hung it around his neck as he did the Welcome and Call to Worship, and it looked so good on him I asked if I could get it back before the sermon at the 11:00 service.  I thought, “Why not?  Pentecost is a special occasion!”  So I slipped out during one of the hymns, put on my robe and stole, and came back out to preach.

It felt good.  It looked good.  And someone told me afterward, “You were on fire!” (I thought he was talking about my preaching; turns out he was only talking about my stole).

I posted the picture on Facebook and asked for opinions.  The overwhelming majority of those were positive.  Many people said I should wear the robe every week.

The next week was Trinity Sunday, and we had a youth choir from a Methodist Church in North Carolina visiting.  I had a white stole hanging in my closet, perfect for Trinity Sunday, and the visiting youth choir was used to seeing their minister in a robe and stole.  So, I did it again: I preached in my robe and stole and it felt great.

At my last church I preached in a robe every week, and I enjoyed it for several reasons.  1) I didn’t have to think so much about what I was going to wear on Sunday, or whether my shirt matched my tie, 2) theologically, a robe is intended to let the preacher “disappear” so that the word of God can be heard, and 3) the stole is a symbol of “the yoke of Christ,” and every time I put it on before I preached I would feel the responsibility to speak a word for him.

Maybe that’s why, last Sunday, even though there wasn’t any real reason to do so, and it wasn’t what you would call a “special” Sunday (the Second Sunday after Pentecost), I put on the robe again, and a beautiful green stole that matched the colors on the pulpit and the communion table.

And that’s when my phone began to ring.

It started with a mention that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care much for the robe and stole.  And then I got email from a former deacon chair who spelled out reasons, both traditional and theological, for returning to a suit and tie.  And finally a member of my “kitchen cabinet,” my informal advisory panel, gave me some informal advice: “It’s just not us,” he said, apologetically.

And that’s what stuck.

For ten years I’ve been wearing a suit and tie on Sunday mornings out of respect for this church’s tradition.  I’ve done some other things to push us toward a more liturgical style of worship: we use the lectionary; we say “Thanks be to God”; we observe the colors and seasons of the Christian year.  But the robe and stole was probably a step too far, and people who love me and love the church were honest enough to say so.

It “clicked” for me last night, when I went to an interfaith dinner and saw the pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, wearing a clerical collar.  It looked good on him, and fit in nicely with that church’s formal, liturgical tradition.  But I thought, “That’s not me,” in the same way one of my advisors had said, “That’s not us.”

So, look for me in a suit this Sunday, honoring the tradition of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, but grateful to be in a place where the pastor can wear a robe and a stole if he wants to.

Don’t be surprised if it comes out again—next Pentecost.

Background Music

paramedicI went to the concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night expecting to hear some glorious music, and for the first twenty minutes I did, but then I saw our ushers running for a gurney and I can’t remember hearing much after that.

Not much music, anyway.

I got up from my pew in the balcony and went downstairs where I found one of our members propped up on that same gurney, embarrassed by the condition he was in, having passed out on the pew and vomited in the Narthex.  He was surrounded by five or six of our First Responders who were reassuring him and making him comfortable while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.  I provided pastoral care while two of our staff ministers grabbed some paper towels to clean up the mess on the floor.  He didn’t want to go to the hospital.  He assured us that he was fine, and that it hadn’t been his heart.  But one of our members, a doctor, insisted.  He had seen a few cardiac events in his life and was pretty sure this was one of them.  So, when the ambulance got there our patient went, reluctantly, and I went back upstairs to the balcony.

I got to hear another ten minutes’ of Dan Forrest’s “LUX: The Dawn from on High,” performed beautifully by our sanctuary choir and chamber orchestra, before the next cardiac event, this time only twenty feet away from where I was sitting.  Somebody’s elderly mother had begun to feel dizzy and faint, and as they tried to help her out of the sanctuary she had to stop and sit down.  “Is she OK?” I motioned.  Her son-in-law shook his head.  I got up and went over to where they were sitting and it became obvious that she needed help.  Someone suggested I call 911 and I did as I made my way back down to the Narthex to round up our First Responders.

One of those, Matthew, had done such a beautiful job with our previous patient that I singled him out and asked if he would come and have a look at this lady in the balcony.  He did, and as I stayed on the phone with the 911 operator I watched the way he cared for her, tenderly, as if he were caring for his own mother.  I could see the relief on her face.  And after the choir had finished and the audience had applauded I heard him say to her, “Your blood pressure is really high.  We need to take you to the hospital and get you checked out.  If you were my mother I wouldn’t let you go home until we had done that.”  And she didn’t like that idea, but she said yes.  Maybe just because he had taken such good care of her.

I talked to Wally Hudgins afterward, our Head Usher, and he was visibly shaken by the events of the evening.  He said, “I thought we had lost one of those.  I’ve been doing this 58 years and never seen it quite that bad.”  But in the thick of it Wally had been there, calling the shots, directing traffic, and making sure that those in need got what they needed.  That’s the definition of leadership, isn’t it?  The ability to keep your head when everybody around you is losing theirs?

It’s Monday morning now, and as far as I know both our patients are doing well, but last night I gained a new appreciation for the pastors, paramedics, ushers, ambulance drivers, 911 operators, doctors, nurses, and other trained medical personnel who leapt into action, doing their work quietly and skillfully as the choir and chamber orchestra provided beautiful background music for the lifesaving drama going on in the Narthex and in the balcony.

So, I’m going to stand up in a minute and clap long and loud for the musicians who labored for months to make last night’s concert such a success, and particularly Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, who dreamed it up in the first place and brought it all together.  But then I’m going to clap for all those people who have spent a lifetime preparing for an emergency like last night’s, so that when the time came they would be ready.

They were.

And I’m grateful.

 

Finding the Holy

worship-service-at-reclaiming-jesusI started a new sermon series last week called “In Search of the Holy,” and I started with that wonderful passage from Isaiah 6, where he “saw the Lord, high and lifted up.”  It isn’t always like that, I admitted, but when worship is at its best the experience can be unforgettable.  And then I shared my own experience of  unforgettable worship.

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It happened to me on Thursday.

I was in Washington for a national preaching conference called the “Festival of Homiletics” when I heard that Michael Curry was going to be in town.  Do you remember Bishop Curry, the preacher who wowed the world at the royal wedding?  He is part of a movement called “Reclaiming Jesus” and there was an event scheduled for 7:00 on Thursday night at National City Christian Church, right next to my hotel.  I decided to go.  But so did 1,800 other preachers who were there for the festival and a whole lot of other people who just wanted to see Michael Curry.  I had to squeeze past a whole lot of knees to find a place on the pew, but as soon as I sat down I knew it was going to be special.

The Howard University Gospel Choir began to sing, and, mercy, those children could sing!  Within a few minutes they had the whole place rocking, and I looked around me at all those introverted preachers from the Mainline Protestant tradition—Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians—and they had been transfigured.  Their faces were shining!  They were clapping their hands and singing along.  But then the speakers for the evening filed into the room and it was like watching the gods assemble on Mount Olympus.  There was Bishop Curry, wearing his purple shirt, but there, also, was Tony Campolo, Walter Brueggemann, Jim Wallis, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Ron Sider, James Forbes, Sharon Watkins, and Richard Rohr, just to name a few: the Elders of the Ecumenical Church in America: Episcopalians standing side-by-side with Evangelicals.

But then they began to speak, and it became clear that they were calling for a re-calibration of our nation’s moral compass, and they were doing it by taking us back to the clear and uncompromising teachings of Jesus.  “We are living through perilous and polarizing times,” they began.  “We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are at stake.  It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else.”  And then they said:

  • We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God.
  • We believe we are one body. In Christ there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class.
  • We believe how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself.
  • We believe that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
  • We believe that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. And finally,
  • We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples. Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to see first narrow nationalistic prerogatives.[i]

I tell you, as one person after another climbed the steps of the pulpit to speak I was seized by the Mysterium Tremendum.  “The pivots on the thresholds shook,” as Isaiah says.  “The house was filled with smoke.”  And I remembered that on Sunday I had asked [my congregation] to pause at Noon every day during the week and pray that God’s Holy Spirit would come and I thought, “Oh, my goodness!  It worked!  Those Baptists can pray!”  It was like Pentecost all over again.  And no sooner had that thought occurred to me than Jim Forbes said from the pulpit, “I don’t even know how to describe what’s going on here except to say (quoting from Acts 2) that this is what the prophet Joel was talking about: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy!'”

And the crowd went wild.

I’m telling you last Thursday night I was in church…and I saw the Lord.  He was high and lifted up, and his holiness filled the sanctuary.  The words of his Son Jesus were lifted up, and offered as the only way of bringing in God’s Kingdom.  The Holy Spirit was poured out on every man and woman in that room, and they went out prophesying, dreaming dreams and seeing visions of a brighter future.  That’s what can happen when you search for the holy.  Sometimes, when the conditions are just right,

You can find it.

[i] Full statement and resources available at ReclaimingJesus.org

Faith Like Noah

1503572605296.jpg--weather_report_Author’s Note: From the second Monday in September 2012 until the second Monday in September 2013 I tried to post on this blog every day, sharing the pictures and telling the stories of First Baptist members who were “bringing the KOH2RVA”—the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—as part of our year-long, every member mission trip.  Even though our members have continued to bring heaven to earth in the five years since then, I have rarely shared their stories.  I was “blogged out.”  But this story seems exceptional, and I was inspired to share it here.  

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Anybody else might have called it off.

A twenty percent chance of rain might have been enough to do it.  A fifty percent chance, certainly.  But Justin Griffin was going ahead with the picnic even if the bottom dropped out of the sky, even if it rained so hard that the main access to Charlotte Acres was flooded and closed, with police barriers across the road.

Which it was.

Christy and I had left early enough to get to the picnic on time, and when we pulled away from the house it wasn’t raining.  But shortly after that it was, and a few minutes later it was raining hard—so hard that my wipers at their highest setting couldn’t handle the volume.  I slowed down and kept driving, determined to get there on time.  But when we got to Creighton Road there was a sign that said “Closed to Through Traffic.”  We weren’t going through; we were only going to Charlotte Acres.  But before we got there we found those barriers across the road and had to stop, turn around, drive back to Mechanicsville, take Highway 360 to Interstate 295, and then head south to the Creighton Road exit.

It took a while.

We considered giving up and going home but Justin wasn’t giving up.  He had posted on Facebook the day before, telling us that because there was a covered pavilion at Charlotte Acres the picnic was going forward “rain or shine.”  He was determined.

And let me tell you why.

Months ago, maybe years ago, I told Justin about the annual picnic we used to have when I was a pastor in Wingate, North Carolina.  We called it “The Promise of Pentecost,” and we got the idea from one of our Baptist partners.  On Pentecost, people from all over the ancient world heard the gospel in their own languages.  They responded to that good news in faith.  They became one church, one family.  “The Promise of Pentecost” was that the family of God divided by the artificial barrier of race could come together in Christian unity, at least for a day, at least for a picnic.  I invited the pastor and members of Nicey Grove Baptist Church in our town to join me and the members of Wingate Baptist Church on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday, and they did, and for four glorious hours we experienced the kind of unity most families only dream about.

Justin GriffinI told Justin that story and it found a place in his heart.  He began to work toward a similar event on the Saturday closest to May 20, the date Pentecost would be celebrated this year.  He built an entire website around the idea, calling it “1721 Reunions” after John 17:21, where Jesus prays that his disciples “may all be one.”

Justin asked if he could use the church’s property at Charlotte Acres, where the members of First Baptist used to go often for fellowship events.  There are grassy fields out there, and a covered picnic pavilion, and functional rest rooms.  “Sure,” the church said.  “Do it!”  But Justin ended up doing most of it by himself.  He invited other churches to join us.  He offered to provide the food (with a little help from Chick Fil-A).  His wife, Alexandra, was recruited to make the desserts.  By the time Saturday, May 19, rolled around, he had invested money, time, and energy.

He wasn’t about to let a little rain stop him.

Christy and I finally got there, late, and found about seven cars parked in front of the little community building.  We put up our umbrellas but still got wet splashing through ankle deep water on our way to the door.  When it was time for lunch Justin stood in front of the twenty people in the room and talked about his dream of Christian unity, which was rooted in the dream of Jesus himself and articulated in his prayer from John 17.  It was a short speech, but a good one.  When it was over and Justin had blessed the food I told him I would like to hear him preach sometime.  I would.  His heart is in the right place.

As you might guess there was plenty of food: enough Chick Fil-A sandwiches for 150 people, complete with potato chips, side dishes, fresh fruit, beverages, and Alexandra’s bountiful desserts.  I left not long after I ate, needing to get back into the Sermon-Writing Chair on a Saturday, but the next day I heard as many as fifty people had shown up by the end, and that they had spent hours talking and laughing and playing silly games together.  Some who were there talked about the rare experience of Christian unity they had enjoyed, across racial and denominational lines.  And it made me think Justin was wise to go ahead with the picnic, even under those discouraging circumstances.

One of the women at the picnic was wearing a T-shirt she had gotten somewhere with the words “Faith Like Noah” printed on the front.  We joked about it at first, thinking it was perfect for a day when the rain was coming down so hard.  But later I looked at Justin, laughing off the weather and filling the plates of everyone who had come to the picnic, and I thought, “Yes.  That’s what Justin has: faith like Noah.”

Or like Jesus.

“God loves you, but…”

droolboy

Good news.

That’s what the word evangelism means in Greek.

And yet, as I was explaining to our homeless neighbors at community missions on Wednesday, the good news preached by many evangelists has a big “but” in it.

“God loves you,” they say, “But…”
But you’re a sinner.
You’re covered from head to toe
In your filthy, stinking sins.
God loves you but…
He can’t accept you in that condition.
You have to accept Jesus,
You have to be washed in his blood,
Then, when your sins have been washed away,
When you are as white as snow,
Then God can accept you,
And when you die you will
Live with him in heaven forever.

“God loves you, but…” the evangelists say, and what they don’t say is that the good news they preach is conditional.  God may love you, but he can’t accept you until you do something: until you accept his son Jesus as your personal Lord and savior.

Your acceptance requires your acceptance.

On Wednesday I asked my audience to imagine a baby boy crawling across the floor toward his grandmother, who is seated in a chair reaching out to him with open arms.  “He’s crawling fast,” I said.  “He’s got a big grin on his face.  Drool is running down his chin.  But suddenly he stops and sits up, gets a look of intense concentration on his face, and begins to…fill his diaper.”

They enjoyed this part.

“Does his grandmother turn away from him in disgust?  No, she does not!  She waits till he finishes and then scoops him up in her arms, takes him to the nursery, puts him on the changing table and begins talking to him in baby talk.  ‘Did you poop your diaper?  Did you make a big mess in there?  Let’s take a look.’  And then she does, and it’s disgusting!  The smell is nauseating!  She’s fighting to keep her breakfast down while that baby boy looks up at her and grins again.  He knows she loves him, dirty diaper and all.

“And she does.

“She smiles back at him.  She can’t help herself.  She wipes his bottom clean, sprinkles on a little baby powder, puts on a fresh diaper, and scoops him up again, talking baby talk the whole time, telling him what a stinky mess he made and how she loves him anyway.  The only thing that has changed, really,

“Is his diaper.”

I want to challenge the notion that God can’t accept us until our sins are washed away, and I want to do it on the basis of John 3:16, everybody’s favorite Bible verse.  “God so loved the world,” it says (the stinky, sinful world), “that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”  We often read that verse and imagine God gave his son as a sacrifice.  But what if that verse is not about the Crucifixion, but about the Incarnation?  What if God’s son didn’t come to shed his blood so that our sins could be washed away, but to reveal the heart of God, and to show us that it beats with love?

Unconditional love.

I told my audience at community missions, “Yes, you’re filthy with sin.  We all are.  That’s what it means to be human.  But being human also means you are one of those made in God’s own image, and maybe that’s all God sees when you look up at him and grin, with drool running down your chin.  He loves you and accepts you as you are.  Sure, there’s that dirty diaper to deal with, but I think God can handle that, don’t you?”

Most of them nodded.  One said a quiet “Amen.”

It was God’s son, after all, who once said to a paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” He didn’t offer up any sacrifices; he just did it.  He had the power to forgive sins on earth and it was God who gave him that power (Mark 2:8-12).  Jesus used to say to sinners like us, “Your faith has saved you,” “Your sins are forgiven,” “Neither do I condemn you.”  He did it everywhere he went, and when he did he revealed the heart of God.

Suppose God gave his son not so much as a sacrifice whose blood would cover our sins, but as an older brother who would come looking for us wherever we are (even if we’re sleeping under a bridge) and tell us that it’s OK to come home, that the father is waiting,

With open arms.