(De)construction

Matthew 11:1-6
When Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples, he went out to teach and preach in towns throughout the region.

2 John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 3 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

4 Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” 6 And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me. (NLT)

We are currently living in a new information age in which it is always important to ask ourselves how we come to know things. This is the study of EPISTEMOLOGY. Thanks to the digital age, we have a deluge of information thrown at us that we can tailor to our specific views on theology, politics, and history. What is even more dangerous is that algorithms are thrown in to understand better what we want, and the digital gods offer it up to us. And for most people, that means that we are only looking at things that agree with our tailored worldview.

On one level, there is the method of indoctrination. This sounds bad at first because it goes against the grain of allowing someone to think for themselves. But when it comes to certain subjects, there is a body of information that we need to be indoctrinated with so that we can know and understand more profound truths. Think about little kids. We, as parents, want to teach them their letters and numbers. This is indoctrination, or maybe a better word is construction, so that they have a foundation in which to think deeper about English, Reading, and Math as they mature. It’s like Confirmation to a certain extent in that there is a foundation of information I would like the teens to understand about the Christian faith. We want them to be orthodox Christians who can understand and articulate the faith. So we are CONSTRUCTING a type of scaffolding and foundation to continue building their faith on in later stages of life.

Indoctrination can only take us so far, though. Let’s consider the study of HISTORY. When I was in high school, all I remember was being interested in learning about the wars. But my history teachers taught me a lot of lists! Lists of presidents. List of important dates. Lists of important events. It wasn’t until I went to college that a specific history teacher taught me that every single history book has some bias from the author. There was no unbiased history book. Not only that, but he went on to teach me about the reality of slavery and the civil rights movement and the impact and effects that are still present today from all of that.

This caused a major shift in my thinking that I want us to see.

Step 1 is CONSTRUCTION. This is where we learn the basic facts.

Step 2 is DECONSTRUCTION. This is when we are introduced to new information that causes us to reanalyze what we were previously taught.

Step 3 is called RECONSTRUCTION, in which we integrate the new information with the old to come up with a new outlook.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in modern-day Christian America, there seems to be a crisis of people leaving the faith. In particular, there is much consternation about Christian teens who head off to college and seem to walk away from the faith. Now there are many reasons for this. One explanation is that some churches and denominations teach a very literal interpretation of the whole Bible. Then when a teenager goes off to college, and their first science class seems to contradict what they have been taught about the Bible, they then walk away from the faith. Another reason offered is that what we are learning is not Christian theology but is instead called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That means that God wants me to be a good and happy person. God is there whenever I need His help. We tend to see God as the benevolent old man who wants us to be blessed and feel good about ourselves. But if we read the Bible, we will see that this is far from an accurate view of who God is. When something terrible happens in our life, this can cause the whole structure of our faith to crumble since it is depicted on an inaccurate view of God.

What happens when tragedy strikes?

When I was in seminary, I lived right across the street from Calvary Church. This church ended up having a profound impact on me as I spent three years as an intern there while I studied at seminary. I got to instantly apply all I was learning immediately into the context of ministry. I had a great time there. My Senior Pastor there at that time was Ed Dobson. He was an Irish-American who was an excellent preacher. He was also the originator of what was then called the seeker-sensitive service. This was a church service he would have on Saturday nights that was more like a nightclub with a band in which he would address current hot topics and take questions after his talk. It drew in many people who would never show up for a regular Sunday morning church service. And this was a church of about 6 thousand members. He was gifted, blessed, and extremely fascinating to be around.

But this is what rocked my world more than anything. As he was nearing the age of retirement, he got diagnosed with ALS. Now I can’t even imagine what he was going through, but let me at least tell you some of the thoughts going through my mind.

Why God? Why would you allow this evil disease to impact Pastor Ed’s life?
After all he has done to advance your kingdom.
After all he has done to grow the church.
After all he has done to be a blessing to others and to teach others about you.
This is how you let him go out in this lifetime?

I nervously waited to see how Pastor Ed would take on this diagnosis. As would be understandable, he had his struggles and low moments, but he also used this time of his life to go deeper into his faith. Ed put together a 7-week small group curriculum about all that he was learning during this time. He wrote a book called “The Year of Living Like Jesus” in which he details how he attempted to live like Jesus: hanging out with undesirables, visiting the sick, observing the Sabbath, reading the gospels every week. The book follows him on this journey in which he tries to move beyond just teaching about Jesus and actually living like Jesus, in the midst of him living with ALS. And he wrote some other books to help those going through difficult times. Unbelievable.

The dark thoughts that haunted me that were in the back of my head go to what if it were me? What if I was diagnosed with ALS right when I was about to retire? What if something tragic happened to me? Would I blame God? Would I be angry at God? Would I dare to deny the faith? What would I do? And in all honestly, I don’t know!

I know that for me, one of the most embarrassing moments in my faith journey was when I came back from my first Africa trip back in 2009. Shelly let me know that one of our daughters had a cyst on her back that concerned her. When I finally got back home, I looked at it for myself, and I was instantly horrified that we may have a child with cancer. Every emotion started to go through me. God, I just got back from serving at an orphanage in Africa for You, and you give my daughter cancer? I was nervous, scared, angry, disillusioned. It turned out that a simple operation removed the tumor, and all was well. Then I was flooded with guilt, embarrassment, and shame that this one incident almost derailed my faith.

Now at every church I have served at, I have seen many people throughout my time in ministry go through deeply tragic times. Yet, in all those cases, I observed that God is a giver of grace and love even when we go through the deep, dark valleys of life. God is with us through it all. Jesus shares in our grief as well as our joy. Jesus understands pain and suffering on a scale that few of us will ever comprehend.

What I want us to do today is to do a character study on the person of John the Baptist.

If you read the Gospel of Mark, the first chapter explodes on the page with John the Baptist. It states:

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began 2 just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
3 He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
4 This messenger was John the Baptist.

This is the child who was the son of Elizabeth, who was beyond the years of being able to conceive, whose husband was promised by an angel that they would have a baby who would become a prophet of God, named John.

Many years before this time, the prophet Isaiah foresees that there will be a messenger who will be sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way. John is the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah!

John has the honor of baptizing Jesus and initiating the beginning of Christ’s ministry and mission.

As Jesus’s ministry began to grow, John’s disciples became concerned and wondered what John thought. John states to his followers that:

John 3: 28-30 “You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.

It would seem that John has fulfilled his purpose in the history of Christianity, and now he can fall in line with the classic movie scenes of riding off into the sunset. Mission accomplished! All ends well! Let the credits roll!

Unfortunately, John’s story has another chapter to it that is hard for us to hear. It is hard for us to accept. In fact, it brought John to the edge of his faith. Unfortunately, his perfectly constructed faith journey that was foreseen by the prophets left out the final chapter, a chapter that is quite dark and unsettling.

You see, John criticized the current king for marrying his brother’s wife. As a result, the wife held on to a bitter grudge against John. So, the king threw John in prison, thinking that that would take care of everything. Little did he know the growing rage his wife had against John.

The king eventually threw a banquet in which his daughter danced for the guests. The performance pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. Not knowing what to ask for, the daughter went to her mother and ask for some help. Unfortunately, the king’s wife seized the moment to inflict her wrath and rage on John by insisting that John be executed and his head be brought out on a platter. This caused the king to be troubled. But he knew that in the presence of his guests, and to stay true to his word, he had to carry through with the order.

What I want us to focus on first is the question John had for Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

As John spends his last remaining days in a prison cell, it appears that he is having a crisis of faith. Is Jesus who he says he is? Is he the Messiah? Are they supposed to be looking for someone else? John had a perfectly constructed faith in which he fulfilled his purpose, and then everything blew apart. A massive deconstruction of his faith occurred. Left in a prison cell to think, he had questions; he had doubts, he wasn’t 100% sure about everything. There are shades of anger, frustration, bitterness, and depression in what John is feeling. This is not a simple question with a reassuring answer that all is well. This is a painful question that John is asking with many layers of negativity attached to it. He is ready to give up.

And if that didn’t make things bad enough, he began to hear stories of Jesus that had to make him shake his head. As an Essene, John took a strict vow against alcohol and limiting his food consumption to only what was necessary, sometimes being as restrictive as eating wild honey and locusts. But then he would hear of Jesus changing water into wine, being called a drunkard and a glutton, one who hangs out with sinners and tax collectors.

And let’s not forget that John and Jesus are also blood relatives. They were cousins. They grew up together, playing games, having sleepovers, helping out their parents with their daily chores, and learning the trades that their father’s passed down to them.

John was in prison, waiting for his demise. He had a cousin who was doing so many miracles for so many other people. Why not him? He had a cousin who talked about freeing the captives? That’s great. What about the one person you are related to? I do not doubt in my mind that John was at his lowest point when he finally needed to ask the question, “Are you the Christ, or are we supposed to be looking for someone else?” John didn’t know what to think.

He felt hopeless.
Alone.
Disillusioned.
He wondered if everything he did was just a farce. Was there any truth to what he was called to do?

If I am thinking like John, I would believe that this is a straightforward question that deserves a YES or NO answer. But Jesus, as is typical of him, gives John more than he is asking for in his response. Jesus tells John’s followers to “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

Is this comforting to John? Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, it is exciting to hear that Jesus is ushering in the new Kingdom of God through the transformation of people’s lives. But what about John? What about his life? Will Jesus rescue him?

Jesus then offers John one last bit of advice: God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.

Put another way: And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

The Greek verb in this verse can be translated as “be lead into sin, be repelled by someone; take offense at someone by refusing to believe in him or by becoming apostate. The Greek word is pronounced “scandalon” in which we get our English word “scandal.”

Gene Edwards, in his excellent little book titled “The Prisoner in the Third Cell,” concludes his study of this passage by stating that:

A day like that which awaited John awaits us all. It is unavoidable because every believer imagines his God to be a certain way and is quite sure his Lord will do certain things under certain conditions. But your Lord is never quite what you imagined Him to be.

You have now come face to face with a God whom you do not fully understand. You have met a God who has not lived up to your expectations. Every believer must come to grips with a God who did not do things quite the way it was expected.

You are going to get to know you Lord by faith or you will not know Him by all. Faith in Him, trust in HIM . . . not in His ways.

But let’s focus on the feelings that John is going through that caused him to question Jesus. Have you ever been there, at the end of your rope, filled with grief and despair, wondering if this whole thing is even real or not? All of us go through phases in life. Some are mountaintop experiences. Others are deep in the valley of the shadow of death. If you happen to be there, know that Jesus has a word just for you, “Do not be offended.” Do not stumble on account of Him. Although this life can be very unpredictable, we know that Jesus offers hope that one day he will make everything right.

As it says in Revelation 21:4-5
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

John’s death is not the end of him. There will be a day when Jesus restores all things to what they were meant to be. A new heaven and a new earth. The Bride of Christ will be united with the Son of God. And this is the hope that we live into every day.

What John might not have been aware of is that Jesus was about to follow him in death. And not just any death but death on a cross. Somewhat ironically, Jesus had a similar question on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the difference is that Jesus, three days later, rose from the dead, defeating death and sin once and for all, and now offers us new life in him. Thus, we live in the “in-between time.” The Kingdom of God is here and is being lived into, but it is in the midst of a culture of sin and death, the kingdom of this age.

So, a couple of questions for you to wrestle with:

  1. What have you built your faith on? Is it so that you can be happy and fulfilled like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or is it more about faith in a God who is with us in all circumstances?
  2. All of us a guilty of constructing a faith that may have some unbiblical elements to it. What are we doing to make sure you are building your faith on a solid foundation? Are you involved in a small group where you can grow together and lean on each other through difficult times?
  3. We will all go through times of deconstruction. If you think you have your faith all figured out, you will be sorely disappointed at some point. You will be introduced to new information and experiences that will cause you to rethink your faith. How are you putting your trust in Jesus to carry you through any circumstance you may find yourself in?
  4. And lastly, what do you put your hope in? Jesus is making all things new and will one day establish his kingdom once and for all. We may be on a challenging ride to get there. We will share in his suffering and death, but we have the reassurance that new life waits for us who put our trust in Him.

My hope for this church is that we present a faith that goes deeper than mere self-fulfillment.

That we are presenting a faith in Jesus Christ that goes beyond anything we could imagine.

A faith that is strong enough to go through the process of

construction,

deconstruction,

and reconstruction as many times as we may need to in our lifetime.

Whatever you are going through know that you are not alone and you have a church family that deeply cares for you. Also, know that Jesus is with you, and it is our privilege to share in his life and death, knowing that one day we will be resurrected like Him.

Amen.

Senior High Trip to Clendenin, West Virginia 2019

Clendenin 2019

On June 21-28, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Senior High youth group went to Clendenin, WV. for our Summer missions trip. The story in Clendenin was very similar to the events in Rainelle. In 2016 there was catastrophic flooding that significantly impacted the town. We were there to help continue the efforts to bring restoration to the town in some small way.

We left for Clendenin earlier than usual. Instead of arriving on Saturday we arrived on Friday so that we could participate and help with the town’s Homecoming Festival. This is a festival that celebrates the hope and restoration the town has experienced since the flood. During the festival we did a variety of things from going on rides, hanging out at concerts, eating fair food, running and serving in a 5K race, serving at a hot dog stand that had A LOT of traffic, and walked in a parade. All the funds that we raised went to the local United Methodist Church. We also learned what a WV hot dog consisted of. It is a hot dog with coleslaw and chili on it. It is actually very, very good! We also had an incident when one of our teens had an asthma attack after running in the 5K race. We took a little trip to the hospital and everything turned out well.

On Sunday we attended the Clendenin United Methodist Church. It was a great experience. The message was really good and the pipe organ was amazing. The people were really kind and receptive to our team.  In the afternoon we headed out to a home in which we were invited to go swimming in the river. We had a lot of fun.

The work days were split between three sites. The first sight was an old church building damaged by the flood that the Praying Pelican Mission bought to renovate into a mission site for teams to use as their home base. We had a team of teens work there to do cleaning, dry walling, painting, and yard work.

The second site was a home that needed a lot of help to restore it. The teens did a lot to clean out the home and put a lot of the belongings into storage so that we could get into the house and do a variety of things such as cleaning, painting the shelves in the kitchen, put in a new bathtub, some basic plumbing, electrical and dry walling. The teens accomplished a tremendous amount of work at this house but it would need more teams to complete the job over the Summer.

The third site was a home out in the country that also needed a lot of help. At this house we were able to clean up a big trash pile that was in their yard, rip out the flooring in the living room and replace it with plastic covering, rip out the counter and sink in the kitchen and replace it with a new one, and put a temporary covering over a corner of the house that had a lot of damage to it.

Overall the teens did a tremendous job of working well together and doing a lot of work. I received a lot of complements from our Praying Pelican leaders on the work ethic of our teens and adults. I can say enough good things about them.

Some of the fun things that happened during the course of the week was that we celebrated two birthdays! One with a cake and one with donuts! We had some new adults and teens with us as well as our Senior Pastor and her husband so it was important that we teach them our classic games we play. There was a lot of Euchre going on too. The week was capped off with a very physical game of hockey using pool noodles for sticks.

On Thursday we went white water rafting with ACE Adventures. We went down the New River Gorge at a different spot that the previous trip with the Junior High. We were able to go down the part of the river that had Class 5 rapids. Everyone survived! We had a few who fell out of their rafts but made it back to safety just fine.

Our last night was very memorable as many of the teens shared how God has been working in their lives throughout the week and how they were going to apply what they learned as they head back home. I always emphasis that mission is an attitude that we instill within us everywhere we go. It is not just a one-week trip out of the Summer. We need to be missional everywhere we go. Our Seniors said their parting words as they are about to begin a new chapter in their lives as they are about to head off to college. Many of the other teens shared from their hearts how God is working through them.

If you would like to see the trip journal that was created by our Praying Pelican leaders just go HERE

If you would like to see more pictures in a Google document that you should be able to add to if you would like then just go HERE

If you would like to see all the White Water Rafting pictures taken by ACE Adventures just go HERE

Overall this was another great trip with Praying Pelican Missions. I would highly recommend them to any youth group. I love that they connect you to a local church. There are a lot of benefits theologically to this in that we are always an extension of the local church as we go out and do missions. Our leaders were amazing. In the small world we live in I found out that our trip leader lived in the very towns I lived in as well as played football with my wife’s cousin. Our team bonded really well with the Praying Pelican staff. I love leading these teens and seeing their spiritual development over the time they have been in the youth ministry. Many of these teens have been with me for a long time. Their spiritual growth and work ethic are amazing. I would take them anywhere, locally, nationally and internationally. They inspire hope for the future of the church!

2019 Junior High Mission Trip to Rainelle, WV.

IMG_3537On June 8-14, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Junior High youth group went to Rainelle, WV. for our Summer missions trip. About once every 4 or 5 years I like to take our teens to a rural area to serve to give them a different experience from ministry in the urban areas. These are always eye-opening experiences as many of the people in rural areas are forgotten about in mainstream culture yet they need help and love just like anyone else. Rainelle was devastated by what was called the 1,000 year flood back in 2016. The town sits in a valley around several mountains. When the storms came the flooding happened from multiple directions. Many lives and homes were affected.

Once we arrived, we set up camp at a school building that is no longer being used as a school but instead as a mission facility for groups to come in and help. It used to be a Christian school called Rainelle Christian Academy. It was a nice facility with a gym for the teens to play around in with their endless energy whenever we were not out doing mission work.

On our first full day we went to church at a local Baptist church both in the morning and in the evening. We met many people and had a different church experience that we were used to.  One thing that I thought came through loud and clear from hearing the preacher twice was that there is a lot of suffering within his congregation and community. A lot of hope was placed on the hope for the afterlife. Overall it was a classic conservative Baptist experience that reminded me of my own past from about 1979. Some genuine care, some fire and brimstone, some fear, some hope.

Monday through Wednesday were our community work days. Some of the projects we helped with were

  1. painting the fire escapes to Rainelle Christian Academy,
  2. helping with the community center in White Sulphur Springs, WV
  3. having a community cookout with the people of White Sulphur Springs
  4. helping the Rainelle Elementary School get ready for their summer reading programs
  5. meeting the mayor of Rainelle and helping her with some odd jobs

A majority of the jobs we did involved scraping and painting. In White Sulphur Springs we helped to take an old, abandoned school and help renovate it into a community center. We also had a cookout with the people that on our last evening there. The teens did a great job working hard, playing hard, and getting to know all the different people we interacted with in these West Virginia towns. It was hard to hear some of the stories about the floods but it was also amazing to hear and see how the towns have come back from such a devastating experience. It was awesome to hear their stories, see the renovations that have happened and continue to go on within the towns, and just appreciate and admire the beauty of these small country towns.

One funny thing that happened throughout the week was that we kept on telling the teens that there would be a talent show at some point. Some, not knowing any better, took us seriously so they began to develop acts for the show. On the last night we were there we decided to actually go through with it. It was a perfect way to end the week with a lot of laughs.

Another funny thing that occurred on our trip was the humming bird that continued to find its way into our cafeteria area. We discovered quickly how hard it was to get a hummingbird to exit the building.

Then another night I was just about to fall asleep when I heard what was a dog fight outside. I didn’t think much about it and went to sleep. The next morning we discovered that some local dogs cornered a skunk right buy one of our vans and tore it to pieces right there. For the remainder of the week that van had a strong odor to it. Thankfully the ride back to Ohio help to get ride of the smell. And I am especially grateful that I did not decide to go outside and see what was up with the dogs. It is a story that could have gotten a lot worse.

On Thursday we took the day off from mission work and went white water rafting with ACE Adventures in Oak Hill, WV. We had an awesome experience with them. The teens had a lot of fun as we rafted, ate lunch half way through, had a huge downpour at one point, pushed each other in the river, and had a great time overall. I would highly recommend ACE Adventures to anyone wanting to enjoy what West Virginia has to offer.

This was also the trip were we had our associate pastor with us and by Sunday we had to take him to the hospital because his heart was beating irregularly. Thankfully after three days at the hospital, he was let go with a strong heart beat. He is doing much better now.

If you would like to see our daily journal that the Praying Pelican Mission coordinators put together you can see it HERE

If you would like to see the photos of all the mission stuff we did you can go HERE

And if you would like to see some picture of the white water rafting activity go HERE

Overall, Praying Pelican Missions delivered a great experience yet again. The teens were taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to work hard and minister to the people we encountered. My hope is that the Holy Spirit uses these experiences to help the teens see outside of their cultural bubble and begin to love and care for people that are different than them socially, economically, and geographically. I hope to inspire the teens to apply all that they learned so that they look at their home life, school life, and extra-curricular life differently as an opportunity to be missional in all that they do. It is not just a one-week trip out of their summer but a way of life that helps us develop spiritual practices of service in any context we are in.

It is a privilege and honor to lead these teens to develop their spiritual lives. We also had a great adult team that went with us. They all assisted and helped the teens to do their best. I even had one adult brave enough to dispose of the skunk carcass before all the teens woke up! It would have been better if I would have done it because I don’t smell skunk but I appreciate the over-and-above attitude of the adults as well as many of the teens. May God bless the continuing efforts to restore Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs, WV.