Love in the Time of Corona: Doing a Wedding During the COVID 19 Quarantine

There is a long list of big events that have already been postponed or cancelled because of the social distancing required by the COVID 19 pandemic: Sporting events (including the Olympics), film festivals, concerts.  But what about weddings?  Spring and Summer is a popular time for nuptials, so couples and ministers will have some difficult choices to make.  But with some frank conversations and perhaps a little creative use of technology, we can minister well in this crazy time.

I have had to confront this issue this week.  Our church’s Media Director had asked me to do his wedding in late May.  His brother is also on our staff as Associate Worship Minister.  The Media Director was engaged to marry the sister of our Associate Worship Minister’s wife.  I’m not sure about this, but I think that would make him his own brother-in-law!  More importantly, it would be a joyous weekend for two wonderful families and our church staff.  But late Sunday night, our Media Director told me that he and his fiancé—after much debate—had decided to just get married…the next day.  It was just too stressful (and possibly expensive) to plan a wedding in late May that might not even happen.

So it was that Monday afternoon, I opened our church sanctuary at 4 in the afternoon.  Bride and Groom were there, dressed nicely if not formally.  Our Associate Worship Minister and his family were there as well, sitting a safe distance away.  A laptop was setup on the front pew, with its webcam capturing the entire brief ceremony.  Members of both families watched on Zoom from all across the country, while we recorded the entire event using the same site.   We skipped the processional and recessional.  Bride and Groom simply stood in front of the webcam, and I stood a few feet away from them.  I read Scripture, then led them through the statement of intentions, vows, and exchange of rings.  I prayed for them, then pronounced them husband and wife.  And yes, he kissed his bride.  Zoom enabled the “audience” to cheer and extend well-wishes.  Afterward, we took a few pictures.  They plan to schedule a bigger ceremony later, when the quarantine is truly over.  But regardless, I thought Monday’s wedding was special.  All things considered, it was one of the sweeter things I have ever experienced in ministry.

Ministers, take a look at your calendars. If you have weddings scheduled in the next six months, I recommend you contact the couples this week and see what they are thinking.  See if they have an accurate understanding of how long this quarantine is likely to last.  Make them aware that, even after we are allowed to go back to work, enter restaurants, etc, there may still be a limit on large gatherings.  Help them to make a wise decision.  Offer to do a small ceremony now, and the big wedding at an unspecified later date (If you do not live close by, they may want to find another minister locally to do this for them).  For goodness sakes, DON’T ASK FOR AN HONORARIUM FOR DOING THIS.  This is our opportunity to help them out in a time of uncertainty and anxiety.

Ironically, on Monday night, after the wedding, I heard from another couple in our church.  They were hoping to do a small wedding, just something in my office, with someone there to record it.  They asked for a date in late May…the same date our Media Director had chosen earlier.  Only now, I was free to say yes.

Peace in the Pandemic

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Hollywood has ruined the idea of courage for the rest of us.  Don’t get me wrong; I love movies, especially stories of heroism.  But think about how heroes in popular movies often behave: They show no fear as they leap across gaping chasms without a rope, or walk calmly into battle zones as bullets spray and bombs burst all around them.  We watch, and think, “That’s real courage.”  We feel like cowards in comparison.  But that’s not courage; it’s foolishness.  In real life, people who behave that way die within seconds.  Courage isn’t a lack of fear; it’s feeling afraid, but doing what needs to be done anyway.

I bring this up now because we’re in a time of uncertainty, which no doubt has many of us very anxious.  If that’s how you feel right now, or if you are close to someone who does, please understand that the answer to anxiety is NOT “Hollywood courage.”  Christians especially need to hear this, because we often misinterpret the biblical command to “fear not.”  For instance, many of us love to quote Philippians 4:6-7,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s a great promise, but we misuse it when we say, “Just stop worrying.  Pray instead.”  Quite frankly, most of us can’t stop anxious feelings from tormenting us, no matter how much we pray.  That’s especially true in our current moment, when we’re all living through a crisis like nothing we’ve ever experienced or imagined.  I heard an illustration in a sermon once that I’ve never forgotten.  The preacher said, “I have a challenge for you.  For the next ten seconds, I want you to not think about red monkeys.  Alright?  No red monkeys, for the next ten seconds.  Ready…go.”  Of course, no one could do it, because the harder you try not to think of something, the more certain that one thing–red monkeys–would pop into your mind.  His point was that trying to stop worrying cold turkey doesn’t work.  But there is an answer: Instead of trying to empty your mind of anxious thoughts, focus on filling it with other, better things.

Perhaps that’s why, just after Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, he writes these words (Philippians 4:8-9):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I think what Paul is saying is that the God of peace doesn’t work through magic; He doesn’t make our fears go away.  Instead, He works through faith.  When we choose to think on the things of God instead of the things we are afraid of, we experience peace.  For example look at the phrase, “whatever is true.”  Anxiety prods us to think of possibilities that may never happen–“What if I get this disease?  What if someone I love dies?  What if I lose my job, and we can’t pay our mortgage?”  It’s only reasonable to be afraid of these things, but obsessing about them does no good.  But there are things we KNOW are true–“God is in control.  He loves us enough to die for us.  He will do something wonderful through all of this pain and anxiety.”  When we are focused on those things, those “true” thoughts push out the “what ifs” that drive us crazy.

But it’s not just about what we think. It’s about what we do.  As Paul says, “practice these things,” referring to the Christian life.  Paul is saying, “Live the way I’ve been teaching you to live.”  So read God’s Word, and put it into practice.  Every day you read it, there is something in there for you to work on.  Checking up on your neighbors, forgiving your enemies, being generous to those who have less, praying for those who are hurting, writing encouraging letters to people who are struggling…these are all things we can do even in a time of quarantine that will align our lives with the instruction of Scripture.  When we think this way and live this way, “the God of peace will be with” us.  In other words, God’s peace comes to those who obey Him.  He works through faith.

But I must add one more thing: There are people among us (more than you may know) for whom anxiety is a daily struggle, even in good times.  If you are one of them, I hope you are getting help from a mental health professional.  There is no shame in that; anymore than a person with a stomach ulcer should be embarrassed to take an acid-blocking medication.  But for the rest of us, how do we comfort our friends and family members who struggle with anxiety?  Pray and listen.  Pray for them to experience peace. And listen to what they say.  Ask them, “What specifically are you afraid of?”  Then sit and listen, without judging or trying to “fix” their issue.  For instance, a friend may say, “I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if one of my kids gets this.  I am just terrified.”  You can certainly tell them that this disease seems to be much harder on the elderly than the young, especially kids.  But even knowing that may not “cure” their anxiety.  Just listen.  If, when they share their anxieties with you, you can show them that you care, it is a great way of bearing their burden.  Their load gets lighter, because they finally feel that someone else understands what they are going through.

At First Baptist Church, we have a vision to bring peace to chaos in our community through transforming relationships.  There is no better time to pursue that vision than now!

 

Regarding the coronavirus

Most Christians know that the most frequently-repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s a sin to feel afraid.  After all, Jesus clearly expressed fear in the Garden of Gethsemane.  God knows we can’t control how we feel, but we are responsible for how we act when we are afraid.  “Fear not” means we can’t let fear control us.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot in these days when coronavirus dominates the news.  One of the main reasons the Gospel spread so fast in the ancient world is that those first Christians refused to be overcome by fear.  The sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book called The Rise of Christianity, in which he sought to understand how the Jesus movement, lacking in resources, social standing or religious freedom, and in spite of periods of intense official persecution, became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by the Fourth Century.  One reason the Church grew was that, during the great epidemics that would sweep through ancient cities, Christians stayed, tending to the sick, while the rest of the populace fled for the hills.  Why would they do this?  Two reasons: First, they took seriously the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves.  They couldn’t consider themselves true Christ-followers if they didn’t step up when their neighbors were dying.    Another was that they did not fear death; in fact, they welcomed it as a promotion to a better world, where they would be face-to-face with their Savior.  As Paul wrote from literal death row, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  In a time when Christianity was known as a religion for slaves, the courageous faith of those ordinary believers opened a door for millions of Roman citizens to encounter the Gospel.

I am not saying the coronavirus is going to be anything like those epidemics of old; I certainly hope it won’t be.  But I am praying that, no matter what happens, we modern-day Christians would not driven by fear.  Can we be honest?  In my lifetime, we haven’t done so well at this.  In the early 1980s, for example, when most Americans first became aware of the existence and rapid spread of AIDS, when no one knew what caused the illness, and people who had contracted it were treated as lepers by most, American Christians, by and large, were just as fearful as the rest of the country.  What if we had behaved like those early Christians instead?  What if we had been the ones to minister to AIDS patients, in spite of the risk, driving them to doctors’ appointments, tending to them in their beds, weeping with them and holding their hands as they died?  Don’t you think our ability today to share the Gospel of Jesus with homosexual men and women would be different?  Don’t you think our cultural credibility in speaking truth in love would be enhanced?  We had an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and we blew it.

For another, much less serious example: When people were in a panic over the so-called Y2K crisis, when some speculated that power grids would shut down at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, leading to the collapse of world economies and rioting in the streets, were we the voice of reason?  Did we exhibit calm in the midst of anxiety?  Not exactly.  I knew some Christians who preached that everyone should buy their own cow so that they would have a source of dairy products when all the grocery stores were no more.  Once again, too many of us were driven by fear.

Let me say it once more: I don’t know what will happen with this disease.  I have great hope that bright scientific minds will find a vaccine and/or an effective treatment very soon.  I am praying toward that end, and so should all Christians.  But don’t stop there.  Pray that we would not let fear control us.  That means we will not pass along hysterical rumors.  We won’t obsessively watch the news, and we won’t believe everything we read on the internet.  Factcheck.org is among many great websites to use in checking rumors you hear, or just call your local doctor’s office.  Heed the instructions we receive from medical authorities.  Right now, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control recommend good handwashing, and seeking treatment if you feel sick.  Most of all, pray along with me that God would allow us to rise to the challenge of whatever comes, that this time we would be the people of God that our community needs.  Pray that, if our worst fears about this disease are realized, we will act like those early Christians, loving our neighbors and refusing to fear death.  Pray, and wait for an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Thoughts from the Holy Land

Image may contain: 4 people, including Kayleigh Berger, Jeff Berger and Carrie Thacker Berger, people standing, sky, grass, outdoor and nature
Atop the Mount of Olives, with Jerusalem in the background

We returned from an 11-day trip to Israel this past Saturday (February 22).  I wanted to share a few thoughts and memories, while they’re still fresh.

I first went to Israel in 2014.  It was a trip led by a teacher in my uncle’s church, an American man who has a lot of experience and expertise in the Holy Land.  I didn’t know anyone in my group before the trip started, but enjoyed getting to know them (many were from the same church, but welcomed me).  We did it as cheaply as possible, staying in a hostel and preparing some of our own meals.  We woke up every morning very early and were out the door before dawn, walking fast from site to site.  I got lots of exercise, very little sleep, and I saw tons of great things.  I never thought I’d have an opportunity to return.

This trip was quite different.  This time, I wasn’t simply a learner; I was leading a group from my own church.  Our tour company brought my entire family along with me, so my wife and kids were able to experience Israel too.  It was beyond amazing to share this with them.  We stayed in hotels, so I slept pretty well, and ate waaaaaaay more than I should have.  We didn’t cover as much ground as our group did six years ago, but we spent more time in some locations, and saw some things I didn’t see before.  Our guide, Aviv, was wonderful.  He’s a young guy, but very passionate about making sure people have a great experience in his homeland.  His knowledge of Scripture and doctrine, along with his excellent communication skills and care for our group, made the trip amazing.  George and Diane, our hosts from the tour company, went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of our group as well.  I didn’t know if it was possible before, but now I can definitively say: This time was even more special than the first.

Here’s a brief look at our itinerary:

Days one and two: We landed in Tel Aviv at night.  Aviv was there to meet us.  The next morning, Moshe our bus driver took us to Caesarea, where we explored the city Herod built to impress the Romans (He named it after Caesar, after all), with its aqueduct, bathhouses, theater, palace built on the shore of the Mediterranean, and the harbor from which Paul sailed to be tried in Rome.  This was the city where the Gospel was first preached to Gentiles, by Peter.  We ate lunch at a restaurant run by a Druze family.  We visited Mt Carmel, where Elijah took on the prophets of Baal.  We made it to Nazareth just before sundown, so we could enjoy a look over the city from a nearby hill.

Day three: We drove to the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the traditional site of Sermon on the Mount, walked through Capernaum and Magdala, and took a boat ride (more on that later).  Our lunch was fish, naturally.  We ended our day at the Jordan River.

Day four: We had a walking tour of Nazareth, including the Church of the Anunciation, the Orthodox Church, and a visit to a shop in the marketplace, where the owner shared stories with us of life as an Israeli Christian.  My family and I had some amazing kebabs for lunch, then we all went to Nazareth Village, a recreation of what the city was like in biblical times.

Day five: We left our Nazareth hotel and journeyed to Jerusalem.  Along the way, we stopped at Megiddo and Beth Shan.  In Jericho, Moshe pulled over for a bathroom break, and several people (including my wife) paid $5 each to ride a camel.  That wasn’t on my bucket list.  We got to the Old City in the evening.  My family and I decided to do some exploring.  We made it to the Western Wall, which is spectacular to see by night.

Day six: We walked through the Old City, visiting the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the pool of Bethesda, the tower of David, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Day seven was a free day in Jerusalem.  My family chose to visit the Herodian Quarter, which contains ruins of a neighborhood near the Second Temple in Jesus’ time.  We also found St Mark’s Syrian Orthodox church, one of two possible sites of the upper room, and walked atop the walls of the Old City (Will’s favorite thing of the week).

Day eight: This was our only bad weather day…it was cold and drizzly.  We drove up the Mount of Olives, two miles outside the walls, where we saw the traditional site of Christ’s ascension, and an olive grove that may have been the Garden of Gethsemane (some of the olive trees date back that far).  We drove to Bethlehem, stopping first at the Shepherd’s Field church outside the city, and then visiting the Church of the Nativity.

Day nine: We drove to the Dead Sea, where we stopped at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, then took a cable car up to Herod’s mountain fortress, Masada.  We finished the day by soaking in the Dead Sea itself.

Day ten: Our last full day in Israel, we spent in the Old City again, visiting Mt Zion, David’s tomb, another presumed site of the Upper Room (where a group of charismatic Christians held a spontaneous worship service).  We visited the Garden Tomb, where we shared communion.  We tried to witness worship at an Armenian church, but just missed it.

I could write paragraphs about every single experience and location, but here are a few highlights and thoughts:

The Old City: Jerusalem is a modern major city with all the trappings you expect: Culture, shopping, diverse neighborhoods, traffic.  But inside that metropolis is a walled city that has existed for thousands of years.  I’ve just about decided it’s my favorite place on earth.  The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian.  Each has its own unique personality.  On Friday, we saw Muslims shut down all their shops and walk to the noon prayer service, then a few hours later, saw Jews gather at the Western Wall, singing and dancing at the beginning of their Sabbath.  We saw people from all over the world there: We met tons of Koreans, including in our hotel.  Once they left, a group of Italians took their place.  But what I love most is the history.  It’s a small enough area that you can walk across it in twenty minutes, but I feel like I could spend months there and never see it all.

Nazareth: Six years ago, I spent a few hours in the city where Jesus grew up.  This time, we spent three days there.  Most Nazareth residents today are Arab, not Jewish, including a significant Christian minority.  Like everywhere else we visited, most speak English, and they are extremely hospitable. The Nazareth Village that we visited is run by a Christian ministry.  Our guide was a young British man who is married to a Palestinian Christian.  The presentation was so well done, we took up a collection and purchased a brick in the church’s name to help with their future plans for expansion.

The Sea of Galilee: We had a memorable time on our boat tour.  It was already a windy day, but when we got out on the water, it started to gust.  At times, the water would sweep over the side and spray us.  Our captain was a Jewish Christian who was sharing his story with us through music, but he had to cut it short.  He handed me the microphone at one point. I hadn’t expected that, so I asked everyone to imagine Jesus stilling the storm.  I said, “Peace!  Be still!”  It didn’t work.  No one was surprised.  Nor did anyone attempt to walk on the water.

Beit Sahour: That’s the name of the village where the Shepherd’s Field church is located; it means “House of Shepherds” in Arabic.  Because Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are in territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, Aviv wasn’t allowed to serve as our guide.  Instead, he turned the mic over to Rafa, a resident of Beit Sahour and a Christian.  From Rafa, we learned not only about what life was like for the shepherds long ago, but what it’s like for Christians like him today in the West Bank.

Magdala and Masada: These were two places I didn’t see last time.  Magdala was a prosperous village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time.  We assume it’s where Mary Magdalene was from.  The ruins of the city were found ten years ago by accident, when a church tried to build a guest house on the site.  There is a synagogue there where, quite likely, Jesus spoke.  Masada was Herod’s clifftop fortress overlooking the desert.  Going up that cable car, I had to suppress my fear of heights, but it was worth it.  Standing up there, you get a sense of Herod’s insecurity and paranoia, and his tendency to show off his wealth.  In the last stages of the Jewish war with Rome, in the lifetime of most of the apostles, a gang of Hebrew rebels made their last stand here against the Romans (some of us are old enough to remember the mini-series about this, starring Peter O’ Toole).

Tourism is booming in Israel.  When I scheduled this trip, I knew it would be cold, but I thought it would also be fairly quiet, since the peak season is March-April.  But everywhere we went, we saw huge tour groups.  It was a little annoying at times.  Sites I had enjoyed six years ago as quiet, contemplative spots were now packed (The Garden Tomb was a perfect example).  Aviv confirmed that tourism has grown in Israel lately.  There has been a long stretch of peace in Israel (the last major violence, the Second Intifada, was nearly twenty years ago), and he thinks that has something to do with it.  I’m happy to see that people are visiting Israel in greater numbers today, even if it made our visit more hectic.

Politics here are complicated, but people are good.  If you watch the news, you may think you understand the political situation here, but you don’t.  Americans, both on the right and the left, have a tendency to see things here in terms of good guys and bad guys, but after hearing from both Aviv and Rafa, two men on different sides of the racial and religious divide, we know it’s more complicated than that.  Are there still tensions?  Absolutely.  Aviv let us know the places in Israel that tourists should not visit.  When we were on the Temple Mount, we had to follow strict rules to keep from offending the various groups who hold that site as holy.  There is still a wall between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and still plenty of rifle-bearing soldiers patrolling the Old City.  But we encountered nothing but kindness from Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Many in our group were unaware that most of the Christians in Israel are Arab, but thanks to our Nazareth shopkeeper and our Bethlehem guide, we now know two.  The politics here are definitely complicated, but we learned there are good people on both sides of that wall.

Israelis love fried chicken: In Nazareth, we passed a building with a long line of people waiting patiently to get in.  Was this some holy site?  Not exactly.  It was the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Israel.  I can only imagine how much they would love Chick Fil A.  By the way, if someone reading this decides to start their own Chick Fil A in Israel, I want a percentage of the profits!

Most Christians will never go to Israel…and that’s okay.  I feel extremely blessed to get to visit Israel, especially twice.  I felt a bit guilty about it, in fact.  Most Christians will never have that chance.  Few have the time, the money, AND the health for it (Much of Israel is very hilly and not wheelchair-accessible).  If you possess all three, then I recommend you go.  If, for instance, you are trying to decide whether to visit Hawaii or Israel, by all means, go to Israel.  But if not, remember this: We call Israel the Holy Land because it’s where so many biblical events took place.  But it is not “holy” in any spiritual sense.  Islam has a teaching called hajj, in which visiting Mecca is part of one’s duty to God.  There is no such doctrine in the Bible.  In other words, God is not more present in Israel than He is in Conroe.  Wherever you are, if you seek Him you will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13), and that makes wherever you are potentially The Holy Land.

And don’t forget, my Christian friend.  When Jesus returns, there will be a New Earth.  Even if you never visit Jerusalem in this life, you will have all of eternity to visit the New Jerusalem in the next.  Hallelujah!      

 

Looking for a good book?

I had big plans to write this a month and a half ago, as a “My favorite books I read in 2019” post.  Then life happened.  So here you go…the best books I’ve read in the past year.

Fearfully and Wonderfully, by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand.  Yancey is my favorite Christian writer, a former journalist who walked away from God as a young man, then came back.  Brand was an orthopedic surgeon who did pioneering work with Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy) in India, then in Carville, Louisiana.  The two men wrote two bestselling books together in the 1980s about how the intricacies of the human body tell us about our God.  This is a combining and updating of those two books for a new generation of readers.

Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brian.   Both these men served overseas on the mission field, which helped them see things in the Bible that we tend to miss or misunderstand.

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is a terrific storyteller.  This book, abut the dangers of trying to communicate with someone we’ve never met before, uses  stories ripped from the headlines or the history books as its examples.  In many cases, I thought I knew what had happened, only to learn something new.  This book inspired me to rethink the assumptions I make when I am talking to someone I don’t know well.

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White.  His previous book, Rise of the Nones, helped me understand the growing number of Americans who choose “none” as their religious preference.  This book helped me better understand the children, teens and young adults of today, the post-millennials who are the most irreligious generation in American history.  White’s church is reaching them for Christ, and he has good insights.

Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others without Sacrificing Conviction, Caleb Kaltenbach.  The title is attention-grabbing enough.  This memoir is written more for regular Christians than for pastors and scholars.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson.  Peterson died last year, so I thought it was finally time to read his much-loved series of essays on the Psalms of Ascent.  It was well worth my time.  The man could write so lyrically, and inspired so much love for our Father.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.  This one is now a movie, starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx.  I haven’t seen the movie, but the book is well worth your time.  Be warned: It will shake you up.  It’s the story of Stevenson, a Christian attorney who chose to devote his life to representing criminals on death row, focusing on one man who was unjustly convicted.

Bruchko, Bruce Olson.  People hand me books all the time.  I hate to admit, I just can’t read them all.  But two different friends loaned me this one, and months later, I finally took the time.  This is a story that seems unbelievable.  Olson, only 19 years old, decided to travel to South America without training, resources or backing, to reach people who had never heard the name of Jesus.  His story is harrowing at times, and too real to be made up (not everything that happens in this book is happy), but ultimately miraculous and inspiring.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.  Yep,  I read it.  Originally, I read this one because I knew a movie version was coming out and I thought it would be good to take my wife and daughter to see it.  We still haven’t made it to the theater, but I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would.  And I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit it!

 

Tough Questions: Why Did God Curse Children?

At another church, we tried a Wednesday night visitation program for a few years.  We never got a lot of participation, and we found that most people didn’t like being visited in their homes.  One night, there were about four of us there, and we were dividing up visiting assignments.  I read out the name and address of a man who had visited our church and filled out a visitor’s card.  Immediately, one of the guys there, named John, said, “Oh, I can’t go see him.”  The other three men in the room looked at him for a few awkward seconds, then John sheepishly said, “I beat him up once.  It was a long time ago, before I got saved, but yeah, I beat him up.”  Right then, Dale spoke up, “What was the guy’s name again?”  Dale was the human resource guy for one of the refineries in town.  When I told him the name, he smiled and shook his head.  “You fired him, didn’t you?” I asked.  “Yes,” he answered.  “Well, actually, he sorta fired himself.”  John piped in at that point, “Well, he sorta beat himself up, too.”

That story was funny precisely because it was so unexpected.  We were in church, after all, where people usually pretend to be nicer than they really are.  It’s a little bit shocking when some of the raw truth comes out.  One thing about the Bible: It’s not afraid of the raw truth.  Today, we’ll talk about a very raw story, from 2 Kings 2:23-25.  This one shows us a side of God we would rather not even acknowledge.  In fact, we rarely mention stories like this in church these days.  But hiding from this doesn’t make it true.

 

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

So does this story mean that it’s a sin to make fun of bald-headed men?  Or that people who don’t respect preachers will meet a bad end?  (Actually, I sort of like that second one).  No, I think both of these stories say something fundamental about who our God is…and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about in our sermons or sung about in our songs.  It doesn’t fit with our common conception of God as a doting, approving Grandpa in the sky.  He is a God of holy, righteous wrath.

This event took place during a time of spiritual crisis in Israel. The King was a man named Ahab.  1 Kings 16:30 says, Ahab…did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.  What did he do that was so bad?  Well, first he married a woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was one of the true villains of the Bible, as we shall see.  Jezebel came to Israel with the express goal of converting the Jews to the worship of false god named Baal. It makes sense:  She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Sidon in the land of Phonecia.  Ethbaal’s name meant “Baal exists.”  One of her first actions was to round up all the prophets of the Lord and have them killed.  If not for the courageous action of a man named Obadiah, who risked his life to hide 100 prophets, they all would have been massacred.  Then she persuaded her husband to build a massive temple for Baal worship in Samaria, the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, and also a statue of Asherah, mother of Baal (apparently Baal needed his mommy nearby).  So Israel, which had been for centuries a nation that was unfaithful to God, now became a people who were outright opposed to Him.  Their idolatry led them into terrible injustice.  1 Kings 21 tells the story of Ahab and Jezebel conspiring to have a man named Naboth executed under false charges just so that they could take possession of his land.

Into this terrible time, God sent Elijah, a hard-nosed prophet with the kind of power that hadn’t been seen since the days of Moses.  Elijah did things like stopping the rainfall, and calling down fire from Heaven, to show the Israelites that God’s judgment was coming on His people if they didn’t repent.  He boldly stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, even at the risk of his life.  Then one day, God took Elijah away in a whirlwind. Along with Enoch in Genesis 5, he is one of only two humans we know of who never died.  That left Elisha, a man who had left great wealth to follow Elijah.  For years, he had been doing that; now it was up to him to stand up for God in a land that had still not been spiritually revived.  This story takes place right after Elisha begins this new ministry.  As Elisha travels back to Bethel, 42 young men come out to mock him.  It’s not clear exactly how old these boys are.  The King James Version calls them “little children,” while some other versions call them “youths,” which is more indicative of teenagers.  The Hebrew term is used in both ways in other parts of the Bible.

Some scholars believe when they called him “baldhead,” it was because Elisha had shaved all or some of his hair as a sign of his new role as a prophet, like a monk’s tonsure.  Some also believe that in saying “Go on up,” they were making fun of the idea of Elijah going up to Heaven.  In essence, they were saying, “Why don’t you go on up there too?”  We don’t know for sure if either of those interpretations are true or not.  But scholars agree that the punishment from God came because they attacked Elisha’s authority as a prophet.  Elijah had been around for years, and pagans in Israel had learned to fear him.  Now he was gone, and these young men felt free to mock his assistant.  They didn’t realize the power came from God, not Elijah, and God hadn’t gone anywhere.

There are other stories in Scripture where the wrath of God comes down in sudden and shocking fashion.  In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to convince the Israelites to stop following Moses, and instead go back to Egypt with them.  The earth opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole.  In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah was one of two brothers who were transporting the Ark of the Covenant on an oxcart.  The Ark was the object that symbolized God’s presence, and it had been in the possession of the Philistines for years.  Now it was finally going home to Jerusalem.  What should have been a joyful day turned to tragedy when an ox stumbled, and Uzzah instinctively reached out his hand to steady the Ark.  He was struck dead on the spot.  And then in Acts 5, a Christian couple named Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of land, kept part of the money for themselves, but told their church they were giving all of it.  When Peter confronted them separately with their lie, they each dropped dead.  When we study these stories, we see some common threads.  What do they tell us about God?

He is a God of absolute righteousness.  God’s wrath is a function of His righteousness.  In other words, God becomes angry when His righteousness is offended.  In short, God hates sin.  God’s wrath is not like human anger.  It is not self-centered, cruel or vindictive.  It is always righteous and just.  Our anger changes us; we make stupid decisions when we are mad.  God’s wrath does not change His character in the slightest.  God can be angry with us, and still love us just as much as He always does.  My own behavior as a parent illustrates the difference between God’s righteous wrath and my petty anger.  If I get angry with my son because he wants to watch a movie and I want to watch football, and in the course of my anger I throw his movie away, that is selfish, cruel and vindictive.  That does not make me a good father, and it doesn’t help Will become a better child.  On the other hand, if I don’t allow him to watch the movie because it has content that would be harmful to him, or because that is the best discipline I can think of to teach him an important lesson, then that is wrath that is motivated by love and a concern for righteousness.  That is the wrath of God.  It is always motivated by righteousness.  It is always redemptive.

When we look at these stories through the lens of God’s righteousness, it helps us see them in a different light.  So for instance, when Korah, Dathan and Abiram went against Moses, they were trying to persuade the people to go against God.  Remember, Moses had proof that God was leading Him.  When Uzzah touched the Ark and died, he was explicitly disobeying the instructions God had given the Israelites for how the Ark should be transported.  It was supposed to be handled in a religiously appropriate way, not treated like a common load.  In the same way, these boys weren’t just mocking a baldheaded man.  They were mocking God’s authority in their lives.

You might say, “But God should have been more merciful.  These stories make Him sound like a short-tempered monster.”  I have three things to say to that.  First, we’ve mentioned four stories out of 66 bibilical books and several thousand years of history.  Examples of God’s sudden, deadly wrath are extremely rare.  Second, if God is who the Bible says He is, a God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our own, isn’t it possible He could have a morally defensible reason for doing something that we can’t possibly understand?  Third, we act as though dying is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person.  What if God’s taking of these people’s lives was an act of mercy?  What if He was stopping them from heading down an even darker path, and leading others in that direction as well?  You  may say, “Well, that’s giving God an awful big benefit of the doubt.” Yes it is, but I think that’s appropriate.  I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

His wrath comes when we don’t take His righteousness seriously.  In the stories I told earlier about the people who caught the bad end of the wrath of God, those people had one thing in common: They all claimed to be people of God.  Even though the young boys who mocked Elisha were probably idol-worshippers (like most of Israel in those days), they surely considered themselves part of the chosen people.  We should see these stories as warnings; God will bring our hidden sins into the light.  Hypocrisy never wins in the end.  The Bible scholar and preacher D A Carson once befriended a man from French West Africa.  Carson grew up in Canada speaking French fluently, so they hit it off, and would often eat together.  Eventually, Carson found out that his friend often visited prostitutes.  Carson knew the man was married, and that his wife was studying at a medical school in London.  He asked, “How would you feel if you found out your wife was doing the same thing you’re doing?”  The man said, “I’d kill her.”  Carson said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a double standard?”  The man responded, “In my country, it’s expected that a husband will have many women, but wives are expected to be faithful.”  Carson said, “You were raised in a missionary school.  You know how God feels about adultery.  How can you do this?”  The man smiled and said, “Ah, God is good.  He is bound to forgive me.  That’s His job.”

Probably no one here would be so blithe about adultery, but what about the sins we struggle with?  Don’t we rationalize them, minimize them, and take for granted the mercy of God?  Isn’t all sin reprehensible in His sight?  I am not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly hope no one here goes home today and drops dead.  I just want us to be aware that God’s wrath is real and if we call ourselves God’s people while unrepentantly sinning, we could find out personally how real it is.

We are supposed to fear Him.  Now that term has always bothered me a little.  The Bible often says we should fear the Lord.  And that term means more than just respect, no matter what people tell you.  It bothers me because I was raised with the belief that God loved me with an everlasting love, that I was the apple of His eye, and that He longed to have a personal relationship with me just like a daddy with his child.  And all of that is absolutely true.  But think about that relationship I just mentioned.  A father and his child may love each other, but that love does not make them equals.  If the father is a good one, and the son is obedient, there will always be an element of fear.  It won’t be a trembling, cringing sort of fear, because that would mean the father was an abuser.  But even with the most loving dad, the son will be afraid to cross certain boundaries.  Otherwise, the son is making himself equal to his dad, and that is not the way God created family relationships.  In the same way, we should love the Lord.  We should pray to Him personally.  We should consider Him our most intimate and warmest friend.  But we are not His equal.  We should continue to acknowledge that there is mystery and holiness about God that we cannot understand this side of heaven.  Otherwise, the relationship is not what it should be.

This is not a comfortable topic to talk about, or to hear about.  How can we possibly approach a God of such awesome righteousness, when we are all so full of sin?  Believe it or not, God faced the same dilemma with us.  He looked down on these people He had created, His children, the apples of His eye.  He saw that we were full of sin and unable to come to Him, when coming to Him was life to us.  In His righteousness, He couldn’t write off our sin…couldn’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter.”  But in His love for us, He couldn’t let us die.  And so He came.  He became a man named Jesus who lived for the express purpose of dying.  Here is how Romans 3:25-26 puts it: 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood… 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  At the cross, both aspects of God’s holy character were perfectly represented.  At the cross we see His incredible wrath against sin; so awesome and fierce, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus at that moment wasn’t just suffering the physical pain of crucifixion.  He was bearing the accumulated wrath of God against the sins of billions of people. We cannot comprehend that kind of suffering.  At the same time, we see in the cross God’s amazing love for us.  Jesus became our atoning sacrifice.  The literal Greek term means, “propitiation.”  That’s an old word that means, “that which turns away wrath.”  It’s the picture of a man who pushes us out of the way of an oncoming truck and takes the hit Himself.  That is what God did for us at the cross in the form of Jesus.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

So earlier when I acknowledged that I am giving God a huge benefit of the doubt in all these stories, that’s why.  If you were a young woman, and your new boyfriend stood you up on a date, you might assume he didn’t really care about you.  Perhaps he was even with some other woman.  But if instead of a new boyfriend, it was a husband who had spent years proving his love to you, your assumptions would be different.  You would say, “Something must have happened.  Maybe there was an emergency at work, and his phone’s battery was dead.  I know him too well to think that he’s done this on purpose.”  We can give God the benefit of the doubt because the cross proves His love is true.  We can read stories like the ones we talked about today and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened and why, but I am choosing to believe that God’s love is real, because of what He did for me at the cross.  Therefore there’s an explanation for this story that I will understand in the right time.”  The cross changes everything.

Our Ten-Year Vision

Note: I shared this with our church on Sunday morning, January 12.  It’s the result of discussions among the ministry staff during our retreat in October, after years of prayer for God’s direction.  First, a couple of disclaimers: First, I don’t know the future anymore than you do.  I believe, as James 4:15 says, we should be humble when we talk about our plans, but I also believe, as Proverbs teaches us over and over again, that we should plan as best we know how.

Second, I realize that you may not like what I will say over the next thirty minutes.  You may think to yourself, “That’s not the vision I have for this church.”  That is your right.   I am the pastor; I am not Jesus Christ, the head of the church.  So let me say this: Whether you jump in feet-first to this vision and do everything you can, praying and working and seeking opportunities to advance this vision, or you just keep on doing what you’ve always done, completely ignoring what I say today, either way, it won’t change the love God has for you.  It won’t change the way that I or anyone on staff here treat you.  We are a family because God brought us together.  But I believe He has given us a tremendous opportunity right now and in the coming years. In the 23 years I have served as a pastor, I have never seen a church that is more positioned to make a powerful impact on its community than this one is right now.  And I believe that the vision our ministry staff has is God-honoring and will lead us into amazing things.  I’d love it if you’d join in.

Where we are as a church.  2019 was a very eventful year for our church.  In the past year, we added 124 new members.  That has led to growth in both of our worship services as well.  You don’t need for me to tell you statistics; you can look around and see.  Many of our long-time members have commented that they see so many new faces, it almost feels like a new church.  I am glad to say that the members who tell me this see it as a good thing.  It’s been a good year financially, as well.  Heading into last year, we had to make cuts to our budget.  But coming into this year, we were able to make some modest increases. Just as significantly, our debt has been sharply reduced.  Two years ago, we started the For the Mission Campaign. We were seeking to raise a little over $2 million.  Some of that was to fund a new sound system and other upgrades for our sanctuary.  Those have been a huge blessing.  But $1.7 million of it was to eliminate debt from a previous renovation.  Today, that number is around $300,000.  If people give to For the Mission this year the way they did last year, the debt will be eliminated before the year is through. Think about what that means: We will have over $12,000 a month to use in ministry that has been going to debt service.

Then there are the things that you can’t measure in numbers: This continues to be a loving, warm, welcoming church.  The unity here is wonderful.  People are growing in Christ.  And we continue to increase our outreach to the community around us.  This past year, 80 people a week learned English as a second language through Literacy First. Last Fall we began a partnership with Sam Houston Elementary School, just two blocks from us.  We furnished school supplies and extra funds, served a back-to-school lunch for the teachers, and best of all, sent 15 mentors onto that campus to invest in the lives of students.  Members of this church took the Gospel to places like New Orleans, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Colombia, and England.

But in the midst of all these good things, I need to remind you of something: We’re still not fully fulfilling our purpose.  Of the 124 people who joined our church, only 22 did so by baptism.  Most of those were brand-new believers. We had many others who moved into our area and joined our church.  We rejoice at that. But many of our new members left another church in our area to come here. If you’re one of them, please know, we are so glad to have you. You’ve already made our church better.  But our gain is another church’s loss, and that’s not how we want to grow in the future.  My prayer is that someday soon, we’re not just rejoicing at bringing new members to our church, but that most of those new members are also new Christians.

Our community.  If you’ve lived here for long, you don’t need me to tell you this area is growing.  A little over a decade ago, a Houston Chronicle reporter called Conroe a “sleepy, semi-rural area.”  But between 2010 and today, the population increased from 36,000 to over 87,000.  For the three years 2015 to 2018, Conroe was the fastest-growing city in America.  By 2040, the population of Montgomery County is projected to double, to over 1 million people.  They move out here for the good life; better schools for their kids, more house for their money, a slower pace.  But look beneath the surface, and you’ll see that the good life isn’t as simple as buying a house on the lake or posting family pictures on Instagram.  Beneath the carefully crafted exterior of these lives, there is chaos.  Families are being torn apart by divorce.  Many marriages are hanging on by a thread; the love has gone out of them long ago. Parents are doing their best to provide their kids with more than they could possibly need, but have no idea what to do when those kids still struggle with bullying, crippling anxiety, depression and hopelessness.  Everywhere, loneliness is epidemic.  In all the chaos, some work harder to make life even better, but that’s just a case of trying the same thing, hoping for different results.  Others devolve into addictive behaviors, and still others seek to end their own lives.  We had a man shoot himself just a few feet away from our church building a month ago.  How many of our own neighbors, friends, family members are just one step away from such a tragic choice?

God’s heart and our mission.  I’ve been using the word “chaos” to describe life in our community. The definition of chaos is “a state of extreme confusion and disorder.”  It comes from a Greek word that means “chasm” or “void.”  Interestingly, the Bible itself starts with the story of the Spirit of God hovering over a formless void. We’ll talk more about this in two weeks, but Genesis 1 is all about God bringing order to that chaos.  With only His spoken words, He turned confusion and disorder into trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, and life itself.   That is what God does.  He turns chaos into peace.  He takes what seems to be total destruction, and turns it into something beautiful beyond comprehension.  This past Christmas season, we studied John 1, and saw that when God saw the chaos of this world, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In other words, God didn’t take up a collection in Heaven and send down a care package; He came to live with us Himself.  He addressed the problem personally.  He ultimately invested Himself in us in the most profound way possible, by giving up His own life for our salvation.  2 Corinthians 3:18 says, And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  Once we come to know Jesus, the more time we spend in His presence, the more like Him we become.  The more like Him we become, the more of His peace and joy come into our lives.  But we can’t keep that peace and joy to ourselves.  We have to follow Jesus’ example, leaving our comfort zone and investing ourselves personally in the lives of the people around us.  As the people around us see His glory reflected in us, they are drawn to Him, too.  That’s how He brings peace to the chaos, by rescuing and redeeming one heart, one family at a time.  That’s what He wants to do in the lives of all our neighbors, and in the lives of the thousands who will move here over the next ten years.

Think about where we are located.  Many churches choose to build in the new, growing areas of a city.  Some pick up and move to where the new homes are being built.  But we’re right here in the heart of Conroe, the heart of Montgomery County, and we have no plans to move.  That means we’re not the church of Woodland Hills, or Greystone, or Grand Central, or Woodforest.  This city and county are our mission field.  And what do we have to offer them?  Yes, we’ve been blessed with some great facilities, and I think our programs are high quality, but that doesn’t really matter to the people who aren’t here.  Do you think a person whose life is chaotic is looking for a comfy pew and a nice sermon?  They need to experience transformation.  The main thing we have to offer is a large number of people who have spent a lot of time in the presence of Jesus.

Let’s do a quick survey: Raise your hand if you’ve been following Jesus for twenty years or more.  That’s our treasure.  We have hundreds of people who for decades have been slowly transformed from who they were into the image of Jesus, with all the peace and joy He brings, and a community full of people trapped in chaos who need what we have. Spiritually speaking, our community is starving and thirsting to death, and we have a warehouse full of the Bread and Water of life. Once they get a taste, they will never go hungry again.  Once they take a drink, the water will bubble up inside them and never go away.  I’m not talking about old-school door-to-door evangelism.  We live in a time when people aren’t curious about what the Bible says regarding salvation.  They don’t accept Scripture’s authority, and they certainly don’t respond well to people who come to their door unannounced with a canned presentation.  The Gospel hasn’t changed, but our mission field has.  I’m talking about getting FBC members invested in the lives of people around us who are struggling in confusion and disorder, and by the power of God in these transforming relationships, bringing them peace and joy.

Our vision.  Over the next ten years, the people of FBC Conroe will be involved in 10,000 transforming relationships, watching God use us to bring peace to the chaos, one heart, one family at a time.  Let’s define what I mean by “transforming relationships.”  I don’t simply mean, “I have three family members, four guys I play golf with, two guys at work that I eat lunch with, and eight neighbors I talk to once in a while, so that’s 17.”  A transforming relationship is intentional, meaning you choose to get invested in someone you wouldn’t otherwise spend time with, or you take an existing relationship in an intentional direction. A transforming relationship is also focused on a need.  So, for instance, you start inviting your elderly neighbor over to dinner once a week, since you’ve observed that she never gets out of the house and rarely has visitors.  You help your young coworker set a budget and get out of debt.  You visit a prisoner on a regular basis, praying with him that the Lord would prepare him for life on the outside once he’s paroled.  You meet for coffee with a single mother, and you let her vent, and pray for her.  In all of these things, you’re helping someone with a need, and you’re doing it in Jesus’ name.  If they aren’t a Christian when that process begins, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have the opportunity to share the Gospel with them at some point, because people just don’t take the time to invest in others like that.  And if they’re already a Christian, you’re helping bring peace to their chaos, so they can more fully reflect the light of the glory of Christ to someone else.

Can you imagine the impact if those kinds of relationships happen ten thousand times over the next ten years?  I can.  I imagine thousands of lives being changed, thousands of families being restored, the Gospel being shared thousands of times, and scores of people coming to faith.  I imagine our local leaders saying to themselves, “Whenever there’s a problem, we definitely need to get First Baptist involved.  They bring peace to chaos.”  I imagine even unbelievers saying things like, “I still don’t agree with their beliefs, but I have to admit those First Baptist people sure do care about us.  They make this a better place to live.”

How will we accomplish this?  First of all, we’re going to talk about it…a lot.  We want this to become embedded in our church’s culture, so that when you think about yourself as a member of First Baptist Church, your first thought isn’t, “I’m a member of this Life Group,” or “I serve in this ministry,” or “I prefer this worship service over the other one.”  Instead, your first thought is, “Here are the transforming relationships I am involved in right now.”  Next, we need to create openings for these kinds of relationships.  For instance, someday soon, we may have mentor couples in this church who meet with people who are engaged, newly married, or just struggling to stay married.  We have plans to build a leadership pipeline, so that young Christians train under people who have been serving for years, to prepare them to lead our church in the future.  We could create a mentor discipleship model, in which Christians are given the tools to sit down and discuss Christian truth with non-believers in a gentle, respectful way over a period of time.  We have already committed to start some form of outreach to our local city government this year; that may have a mentoring component.  Perhaps we’ll each have the opportunity to adopt a city employee, praying for him and his family.  We could give you tools to use in witnessing to the non-Christians in your life, like a book you could study along with them.  These are all ideas at this point, you understand.  Don’t volunteer for them yet, but be listening as they come up.

Third, we need to figure out a way to keep track of these transforming relationships, so we know how we’re doing.  Some of these kinds of relationships are already going on.  We have many members involved in mentoring relationships at Sam Houston Elementary and other schools in our community.  You can volunteer for that ministry today; there is a huge need for mentors.  We have mentor Moms serving in Mothers of Preschoolers.  And I have no idea how many transforming relationships are already taking place without any kind of official church program, just one member investing in the life of his neighbor, her coworker, their son-in-law or friend.

What happens next?  This year, our theme is “His story, your story.”  I’m going to be preaching all year about how God brings peace to the chaos around us.  The sermons will be primarily stories of how God uses ordinary people to bring this about.  Meanwhile, you’ll hear a lot of stories about FBC members engaging in these kinds of transforming relationships, too.  The hope is that, as you hear all these stories, you’ll think about the people who’ve invested in you, and you’ll be praying for opportunities for you to do the same for others.  Meanwhile, we’ll be doing what I said earlier: Talking about the vision, creating openings for these transforming relationships to take place, and finding a way to keep track of what God is doing.  And we’ll be preparing for the future.  If we become this kind of church, we’ll see more people want to join our church family, including many new believers.  We’re already getting crowded, so we’re working through the details of starting a third worship service and a second Life Group hour within the year.  I know just saying that opens a huge can of worms, and you want details, but just trust me…we’re working on it, and we’ll let you know when we know. Here’s what I know: The year 2030 sounds far away, but it’s not. If Jesus doesn’t come back first, that year will be here soon. More importantly, our community can’t wait for us to get our act together.  We need to become a church of people who invest in our neighbors as soon as possible.  The people of this community need to know that the heart of Jesus is at the heart of this community, and He loves them.

Here’s something else I know: If your life is full of chaos, confusion and disorder, there is good news.  All of us were lost in that chaos.  It was like there was a vast chasm filled with churning death separating us from the joy and peace we hoped for.  But Jesus loved us enough to die for us.  He threw Himself into that chasm, and became the bridge so we could walk to the Promised Land.  He did that for you.  He can bring peace and joy into your confusion and disorder, if you’ll let Him.  That’s the ultimate transforming relationship.  Come to Him today.