Two Ways of Seeing

2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:5, 6:8b – 6:10

20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger … We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, …”

Many will recognize these lines from the opening of the Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Whenever I got my essays back from my high school English teachers, all bloodied with red ink marking my sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences, I desperately wanted to plop this sentence down in front of them and proclaim something about their stifling my creative juices with all their strict grammatical boundaries. Thankfully, my respect for (fear of) these teachers kept me from comparing my sophomoric musings to these masterful lines.

I cannot imagine words more appropriate in describing the complex nature of this era in which we live — a time rich with opportunity and full of new tools to diminish the world’s suffering, yet fraught with so many complicated challenges like global warming and our present health crisis; a time when we see real progress in many areas of society, yet worry that its underlying fabric is disintegrating beneath us due to political pettiness and the valuing of individual self-interest at the expense of group compromise and cooperation.  

Paul also was writing to a community that was complex and challenging, and his relationship with the Corinthians appears to have had its ups and downs. First, century Corinth was a cultural crossroads, having both strong Greek and Roman underpinnings, and bearing the religious practices tied to these cultural backgrounds. Prominent was the worship of traditional gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman religions, along with their local deities and heroes, as well. Roman cults were especially important to the city’s elite, and the imperial cult — in which the Emperor, his ancestors, and his family were venerated — formed an important part of religious and political life. In other words, Paul had his work cut out for him in attempting to spread the gospel message into this diverse and sophisticated society. The Church’s challenge in our time is not unlike the one Paul faced in Corinth. His cultural jumble sounds rather familiar doesn’t it?

Paul’s words to the church in Corinth reflect some of the challenges and hardships he and the church had faced bearing the Gospel into this diverse milieu. “[B]ut as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” Yet, in the midst of all these difficulties his words contain a hope that grasps a second reality which transcended the challenges of his day to day life in the world, one that somehow saw beyond the grave circumstances he and the church faced daily.

The cross of Christ is an acknowledgement that the world can inflict its brokenness on us, challenging our psyches with the uncertainties of this time in which we live.    But the empty tomb is God’s answer, that even in the midst of the distress we experience, we can celebrate that our faithfulness promises a new day, one full of hope because we are united in Christ’s victory over the world. 

Paul’s words of hope to the Corinthian community seem remarkably similar to the comparative phrasing Dickens used above, expressing two divergent perceptions of our existence.  “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul’s words remind us that there are two realities available, by which we can perceive our existence. One is viewed through the grimy lens by which world sees. The other is a perspective enlivened by hope, gained through embracing both Christ’s cross and his resurrection.

 Not too long after penning his letter to Corinth, Paul went on to Rome and his death. It’s not hard to imagine that he embraced his own execution with such peaceful words on his lips — consoling words by which we could perceive our own faith:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” -Last line of A Tale of Two Cities

Prayer:

Gracious God, help us to see with eyes of faith. Let the hope that your resurrection bestows, inspire us to believe that our work in the world and our efforts to bring the kingdom are meaningful and effective. Grant us that peace which trusting in You imparts. Amen.

Musical Selection

To God Be The Glory

Hear the Good News!! Join Zoar UMC and hear about the miracle of life and death of Lazarus as told through John 11:1-45.

For Tithes and Offerings:

Zoar UMC continues to operate and provide a resource for God’s children, even during times where we as the community seek shelter and comfort in our homes. Please consider generously donating so Zoar can continue to abide by God’s declaration to provide radical hospitality and generosity.

Follow this link for online tithes & offerings.

 

Overcoming Our Fears

Passage: Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Even though we walk through the darkest valley – yes, this is definitely one of those moments in human history, one that immediately draws us to this passage. Fitting that it appears in the lectionary this Lent. Not since World War II, when many folks were caught up in a conflict to determine if evil would take control of the globe, has there been such a cloud of fear and uncertainty over humankind. Many of these fears are reasonable. We’re anxious about our own health, knowing now the seriousness of this disease. We worry about the health of our loved ones, especially those who are more vulnerable to infection, as well as those who work in places that are more at risk, like our health-care workers, grocery-store employees, etc. I’m anxious about my daughter Anna who is a nurse at a hospital which now has a patient infected with COVID-19. She’s alarmed, as the hospital has already started rationing their use of masks and gowns, protective equipment that prevents the spread of the disease to others. She’s concerned for herself and the children she treats. She is also afraid to spend time with us now, worried that she could bring the virus into our house. And for all these reasons, we fear for her physical and emotional health.

If we don’t know someone who has been sickened or whose health is directly threatened by the disease, we worry about the damage the pandemic is doing to the economy, whether we will have jobs when this is all over, whether our savings will hold up until the virus runs its course, whether our retirement investments will be all gone with the plummet of the stock market. And although the most reliable sources reassure us that it’s unwarranted, many still fret about the availability of food and supplies that we need to get by. Beyond these tangible concerns we experience, the terrible uncertainty of this time may create the most fear.

Fear is a terrible thing. It can dominate our lives, crippling our ability to use reason in solving the difficult challenges facing us. It can make us selfish, tribal, only concerned for ourselves and our own folks. I’m ashamed to acknowledge that while shopping the other day, I caught myself being pleased at figuring out that there were protective gloves in the paint aisle, thinking that I’d found supplies that others might have missed. Suddenly I remembered that others needed gloves as badly as I did.

And to these fears come the familiar words of the psalmist. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What is in the heart of the writer as he expresses these comforting words? Is he telling us that those who believe in his God have nothing to fear? Is he indicating that life for the faithful is always about “green pastures” and “still waters”? Viewing the span of writings in the Book of Psalms as whole, one would argue, on the contrary, that the writers were quite realistic about the difficulties they faced, we face, in their/our lives. Among the psalms, today’s heartening words are a minority sentiment compared to the words of lament and disenchant-ment. Of the five main categories of psalms, laments (68 of them) far outnumber the next highest category, thanksgivings (34 of them).

What is in our own hearts as we avidly embrace these sentiments? Skeptics might offer that we are attempting to put on a brave face, struggling to be hopeful about our lives and our faith in the midst of the distressing times we’re experiencing. Could there have been moments amid my own struggles of faith when I claimed these words because I needed them to be true? In all honesty, I acknowledge the answer would likely be yes. However, there are other times when the words of this psalm simply emanate from our hearts as we reflect on the support and comfort that our life in Christ provides – at the most challenging of times and in moments of feeling most blessed. Not that it erases the difficulties in our lives we experience, but that it expresses what we have glimpsed, here and there, of a truth that transcends the concerns of this world, a reality that is safe, comforting, and full of blessing.

In a somewhat inverted order, the psalmist first proclaims how it will be when all is right, when God’s kingdom is finally realized. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” It is life as it should be, life as it will be, some fine day. Whatever life beyond this world may be, I wouldn’t complain if it were much like this.

What the psalmist next expresses is that God’s presence is here, ever-present, even in the reality of these darker days, this Lenten time of ominous events and experiences, before His kingdom is realized. And with this hope of future fulfillment, and a trust engendered by our here and there, now and then moments of clear seeing of God’s presence in our past, we find the courage and conviction to walk confidently, even during the daunting moments of our present days. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Each Lenten season calls us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. However, the cross of Christ is not only a calling to a life of sacrifice. It is our comfort too. For our God is not just the powerful One who created the earth and set it in motion. He is also the One who came to earth wearing our flesh. Jesus took on the suffering of our flesh not only to show us he would suffer for us, to save us from all the brokenness of this world; but also that he would suffer with us, that he is one with all our trials and the dreads we will face until he comes again. That even as we walk through these perilous times, we have nothing to fear. That even if our table has fewer persons gathered around it these days, our cup of blessing remains full – until that final banquet when we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Prayer: God of those who suffer, despair, worry, grieve, we trust in your steadfast love, and hope for the joy we have experienced in your presence before. Remind us, even when our strength and resolve grow weak, and fear threatens to overtake us, that we are never alone in our struggle, that You came to suffer with us. Amen.

Today’s musical offering: Ladies in Lavender by Joshua Bell

Whistling Past The Graveyard?

Passage: Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

While our mission group was working in a rural village in Honduras, we were asked by the Honduran minister from our mission organization, if any of us were interested in going out to pray with the residents of the village, as a number of folks had requested prayer. While I found the manual labor we had done in the homes quite meaningful – pouring concrete floors over the dirt floors on which they normally lived and building latrines – I also welcomed the chance to share a time of prayer with the people with which we were working. The experience was eye-opening and poignant. As the minister translated, one young woman sought healing for a digestive system malady, likely a problem with her gall bladder, the minister gathered. Another older gentleman requested relief from the difficulties and pain caused by a serious hernia. A mother and father wanted healing for their daughter, who was sitting there with us, from a head injury which quite obviously had affected all aspects of her life.

While we were praying with these devout persons, the full reality of the situation began to dawn on the three of us who accompanied the minister. We weren’t able to pray for them to find the right doctor to heal their particular health issue, or for proper medical attention to reach these persons. Such help is simply not available to nearly all persons in the remote areas of Honduras. Only one general-practice physician serves the nearly one hundred thousand residents of the entire Agalta valley. And most of those folks have no means of travelling to see the doctor. Our prayers were for God to provide healing and comfort directly to meet the needs of these persons.

In that moment, I realized that prayer for healing there was quite different from a prayer for healing at home in the United States. At home, the expectation that God might heal us directly, isn’t really a necessity, is almost an “add-0n”, with the knowledge that we are certain to receive suitable medical care for our ailments. Such prayers for healing are much easier to make under those circumstances. A prayer for healing in Honduras lays one’s faith bare, with the knowledge that only God and ourselves will be present in any way to help bring healing and comfort to those for whom we pray.

Now with the growing threat of the coronavirus, we find ourselves increasingly more exposed to conditions that are out of our control. We too are becoming acquainted with the insecurities of life that are commonplace in much of the world. How do we read the passage above now when our confidence, in the ability of the government agencies and our medical care system to keep us safe and healthy, is in question? “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Will we read it as a pep-talk, an optimistic statement touting a God who is in charge in of our world and will protect us from all harm? Will the psalm merely become “whistling past the graveyard”, an attempt to calm our fears and bolster our confidence in a time when we are weighed down with anxieties?

It’s safe to say that the faithful of Israel who sang or chanted this psalm had no health care system or police presence or unemployment benefits to give them any confidence that life would remain dependably safe and secure. Much like with our prayers in Honduras, the faiths of those invoking this psalm were laid bare in the moment of voicing these affirmations. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper … The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Only those who had completely entrusted their lives to this God, could affirm such claims with real conviction. Only those who had thrown in their lot fully with this Lord – in good times and bad, in abundance and scarcity, in health and in sickness – would be able to proclaim these words so as to find great comfort in them.

While I do not believe in any way that God has visited this pestilence on humankind, our situation has provided us with an occasion for reassessing the foundations of our faith. Might it even offer us the opportunity to rediscover the real basis for our life as Christians? Might it remind us that our security can never be found in the safety and abundance of our American lifestyle, can never be assured by our own efforts to protect our lives from the slings and snares that all of us will surely encounter. My time in Honduras, and our time with the coronavirus, might help us remember that as Christians our security and hope is built on our trust in the “faithfulness of Another”; the faithfulness of One who chose to be with us, to know our doubts, our pain, our vulnerability. “Faith means trust,” wrote Karl Barth.

Trust is the act in which a person relies on the faithfulness of Another, that God’s promise holds. … “I believe” means “I trust.” No longer must I dream of trusting in myself. No longer am I required to save myself. … In God alone is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to him, to rely on his promise and his guidance.

In this time when uncertainty threatens to overwhelm us, this passage reminds us that the only real security we are offered is entrusting our lives to this One who came to be with us, and gave himself for us.

Prayer: Gracious God, who is faithful to us in both our belief and our unbelief, give us the courage to live our lives depending on our trust in you.

Remember, the psalms were originally designed to be sung/chanted, sometimes even accompanied by music, as they were expressions of the heart, not simply reflections from our heads. Perhaps you might want to reread this passage while listening to the piece linked to below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7SvBtJuh3Y

Faith in the Time of the Coronavirus

Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

Passage: Exodus 17: 1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I’ve been asked to reflect a bit on our time as a community of faith during this global emergency with the coronavirus; and it calls to mind the season of Lent in which we find ourselves. Like last year, I’ll be using passages from the Common Lectionary, which most mainline Protestant churches employ for their scripture readings during each season of the liturgical (worship) year. I’ll utilize these biblical passages, because assuredly I would quickly run out of any personal wisdom I might have to add pertaining to this crisis, thinking it much wiser to draw my thoughts from a much deeper source of wisdom. Since we are just now realizing how life-changing this world-wide sickness will be, I thought I should just pick right up with this reading from the third week of Lent, one that definitely reveals the difficulties of the people of God.

Our passage today is taken from one of the stories most central to the Old Testament, the Exodus. Having finally been freed from the hard heart of Pharaoh, the people of Israel must pass through the desert to reach the homeland which God had promised them, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Now in the midst of the wilderness, the people of Israel have started to argue and groan about their hardships, previously hunger, now in our story, thirst. Moses even assigns this location two names “Massah” (deriving from quarrel) and “Meribah” (originating from complain) to attest to the people’s contentious nature.

Yahweh’s people are out wandering in the “wilderness of Sin”— just the name generates a powerful image. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst,” they press Moses. Remember, Egypt – where they had been living in suffering and servitude under the thumb of the Pharaoh? They do seem to have quickly forgotten the miserable existence they had been experiencing. I guess their thinking is that at least it was an evil they were familiar with. Or perhaps their first experience of freedom and deliverance at the Red Sea gave them the wrong impression, that life under Yahweh’s leadership was going to proceed from victory to victory, a time of constant “milk and honey”.

And here we are all wandering in our own wilderness, far from the places familiar to us, far from a way of going about our lives that is in any way recognizable. Some of us may be in difficult financial situations, with the effects of the pandemic crushing the part of the economy on which our jobs depend. My daughter had to lay off around twenty employees today – twenty real persons with lives and families of their own – because the activity at her place of business has all but stopped during this crisis. Others of us are lonely, as the present predicament keeps us housebound, without the support and comfort we typically gain from friends at church and work. My Dad who lives in an assisted living center in Tennessee, is not just quarantined at his location, but has now been asked to stay in his apartment and have his meals delivered there. And all of us are anxious that life as we know it has been threatened in a real and undeniable way, with no certainty when the situation will be rectified. Some of us may be wondering like the children of Israel complained above, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

A repetitive theme appears throughout this entire narrative of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. The people encounter difficulties. God is faithful and provides comfort and assistance. The people are briefly happy. Then they encounter another problem, and the people forget all that God has done for them. They experience consternation and frustration at each obstacle, complaining their lives are too hard. It would be easy to laugh and poke fun at the people of Israel, if it weren’t for the fact that they so resemble folks very close to us. Certainly not ourselves, of course.

Perhaps we are wondering about God’s presence during this time of difficulty for us and the life of our church community at Zoar. Weren’t matters already challenging enough with our diminishing size and financial struggles? Considering all this, I am reminded of the first few lines from a helpful book I read years ago, The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this, … we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer as difficult.” Those of us who are more seasoned (i.e. older) can no longer deny the truth that life is hard and brings challenges and sorrow to us all, no matter how we approach it.

While not immune from the struggles all are facing during this grim and trying time, we don’t have to let our concerns overwhelm us. As those of faith, we know in Whom our security lies. We don’t have to become cynical or live without hope. If we attend to these hardships with a “faith memory”, with the ability to recall the history of God’s ongoing presence in our lives, we find that much can be gained, much learning can be gleaned, while undergoing these difficult times. Sustained by our continued relationship with the One who is always constant, faith provides us a way through rather than just a way out.

This time of struggle in the wilderness was not simply a learning experience for the people of Israel. The relationship of trust in God built through Israel’s forty years of struggle, became central to their identity, to their faith history, as a community of believers, beyond those years of testing. God did not immediately deliver His people out of their troubles. He sustained his people through their times of trial. On the far end of trying times with my own health and living through a divorce, interpreted through the eyes of my faith, I find that I have discovered much more about myself. More significantly, my faith is stronger, having developed new compacities for understanding, gratitude, and compassion. The faith in Christ, through which I searched and found great comfort during those times, is now more central to every part of my life.

As we consider our responses to this crisis, both as individuals and as a community of faith, let us remember our own faith histories, our own stories of how Christ has been present in the joys and challenges of our lives. Let us continue to conduct our days in ways that befit this faith relationship that has sustained us. Let us continue to reach out – by phone, email, pen and paper, and by whatever other means we discover possible – to embrace our church family and to aid those who need our help. In doing so, I believe we will find Christ present in our actions, present for others, present for ourselves. And isn’t that what we are looking for in our time of need?

Prayer: Patient Lord, why is it that our first impulse is to complain rather than to trust in you, when adversity blocks our way forward and threatens to drive out the joy in our living? Help us to remember the history of our life together and depend on your continued faithfulness; and in so doing will our bond with you grow ever stronger. Amen

Author’s Note:

Scroll to top