Thoughts in the wake of a tragedy

They say it is the worst mass killing on U.S. soil, and it happened today.

Fifty people dead, and 53 more wounded, they say.

All across social media, people have one resounding question: WHY?

Some say religion is to blame, while others say things like “intolerance” and “hate.”  Some say the fault belongs to gun laws in our country (or the lack thereof) while some blame law enforcement for not acting on prior concerns about the killer.  Still others will claim this tragedy is “God’s judgment” on our nation, or even on a particular group of people.

May I suggest an answer that is far deeper, yet far simpler than any of these?

There is a violence that springs out of a sense of self-preservation, but this was not that kind of violence.

There is a violence that is birthed by a desire to protect people we love or things we care about, but this was not that kind of violence.

The kind of violence that causes a man to take multiple weapons into a crowded nightclub and open fire has its root in one simple thing: the devaluing of another human being, and there is one key belief that causes this behavior.

Self-righteousness.

I believe the reason fifty precious lives were extinguished is because one man felt he was above them in some way, which to him justified his heinous actions.  He thought he was better than them, therefore their lives were less important than his, and worth taking.

You see, when a person believes themselves to be morally superior to another, it’s only a matter of time before they stop seeing the other as a person at all.  They are something different, something less, some thing that has a name and a category, but isn’t the same as them.

This is when the broad brushes come out, and the self-righteous person stops seeing certain people as fellow human beings and instead sees “gays,” “Christians,” “Muslims,” “conservatives,” “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” “white people,” “black people,” “rich people,” “people on welfare,” and the list goes on and on.

And we all do it.

Maybe you’re feeling that way right now towards the killer, thinking of him as an “extremist,” or a “terrorist,” or a “fanatic.”  Maybe these labels apply, but here’s the deeper truth: he was a person, too.

I’m not saying he deserves pity, or that his actions were in any way right or justifiable.  I’m saying that for all of us, we would be wise to use caution as we ponder this incident, because if we’re not careful, our broad-brush statements about the kind of people who do this sort of thing have the potential to put us in the same boat as him, not as murderers with our hands, but as murderers in our hearts.

This is why the Gospel of Jesus is so powerful, because at its core is the truth that nothing you or I can ever do will make us better than anyone else.  No amount of rule-keeping or moral behavior can earn us the right to be called righteous; only Jesus can do that.  The best we can do is receive a gift we didn’t earn, and remember that all of us are broken and in need of grace.  Embracing this reality sets us free from the need to place ourselves on a pedestal for our performance, and releases us to truly love others as full equals in the human race, regardless of who they are or what they believe or what they’ve done.

Every human life is precious, valuable, and worthy of respect and dignity.  When you realize that you’re no better than anyone else, then whether you agree with their beliefs and behaviors or can’t stand anything they stand for, you can still choose to see them for what they are: a person just like you.

So, if you’re a praying person, pray for Orlando.  Pray for the victims and their families.  Pray for the people of the surrounding communities, and for the law enforcement and medical personnel who will continue to sort through the pieces in the days and weeks to come.  Pray for the killer’s family as they bear the shame and guilt for the actions of this man.

And pray for yourself, as well.

–Pastor Phillip

Thoughts on working through a miscarriage

It was a Tuesday night around 9pm.

The doctor strode in to our room at the ER and announced to my wife and me, “I’m sorry, you’ve had a miscarriage.” Heather had already known; she had felt it in her body and her heart. I was holding on to hope, not wanting to believe, but with the matter-of-fact words of the doctor, the case was closed. It was over. We had joined the ranks of the 1-in-4 pregnancies that end in miscarriage.

She was ten weeks along, and though we had shared the news with a few people, we were waiting to let people know until we had ultrasound pictures to show. Now, instead of announcing the joyous prospect of new birth, we found ourselves having to share news of death.

In the wake of this shock, we knew we needed time to grieve, to process, to heal, but we didn’t know what to do. We felt we needed to get away, but didn’t have the money to do so. In God’s Providence, one of our congregation provided a Pastor’s Appreciation gift that enabled us to afford to drive to see family in Virginia, where almost the entire clan from my father’s side were visiting.

In the last sermon I preached before that fateful day, I shared this encouragement: “maybe your struggle is helping someone else grow strong.” Who would have guessed that that thought would end up being for me.

I never want to rush through something that God has allowed for a deeper purpose, and as I work through this new chapter in my journey, I wanted to share some thoughts God has put on my heart in the midst of this trial, in the hopes that they will encourage and strengthen you for yours.

– – –
I find myself alternating between strength and sorrow, between holding things together, caring for Heather and Bradley and the other facets of our life, and letting myself go into grief, embracing the ice-cold waves of sorrow as they rush without warning into my soul.

This back-and-forth experience is healthy, but it is hard. It is good, but gut-wrenching, this journey into the deeper layers of human experience in a broken world. For that is what this is, simply our turn on the merry-go-round of loss and pain, and like any merry-go-round, I know this, too, will come full circle in its time and bring us back to joy again.

I find myself frustrated because I know that grief is something you can’t simply rush through, but I have a family to take care of, a job to do, and a church to lead. In my more reflective moments, I have to admit that I don’t want to enter fully into the pain, because I am afraid of what it will do to me.

Yet, I have to face that fear. You have to face that fear.

– – –
I realize that for me, it’s still so early in the grieving process that right now I’m simply falling back on what I know to be true. I am clicking into auto-pilot to try and cope, and to hopefully bring something good out of this tragic moment.

Yet, at the end of the day, we are not the ones who bring light out of darkness, God is, and He will do so in His way, and in His time.

In the meantime, I cling to three things that give me hope. To share them with you doesn’t mean that I have it all together and figured out, but simply that I’m choosing to hang on to what I know is true, even as I realize that I’ve still only weathered the first few waves of grief in the onslaught of emotion to come.

– – –
First, Heather and I don’t blame God for visiting this pain upon us, nor do we believe He had nothing to do with it at all. Both of these extremes lead only to despair, and neither have any claim on the God of the Bible.

No, God did not cause our loss, but neither was He powerless to stop it. Instead, He stood by us and stands by us still in the midst of the pain. He has allowed us to go through this trial not because He doesn’t love us, but because He loves us enough to let us be tried and forged in the fire so that we might come out stronger and brighter than before.

Today we choose to not blame God.

– – –
Second, we don’t blame ourselves, because we know in the long history of a world marred by sin and marked by its repercussions, the day of heartache will come to us all.

In this world of death and loss and tragedy and pain, each of us is allotted a cup of suffering. Though we would nearly all choose to let it pass without partaking, that is not our decision to make. Rather, our choice is how we will drink it: with bitterness and resentment that God would dare allow pain into our lives, or with the strength and courage of Jesus, whose prayer in His hour of trial was, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)

Today we choose to not blame ourselves.

– – –
Third, we remember the Gospel, because moments like these are precisely where the glorious light of the Good News shines through!

If Jesus has indeed conquered the grave, then though our hearts may hear its bitter laugh in this moment, we choose to weather the pain in hope because we know death will never have the last word, and we will get to meet our unborn child someday.

If Jesus has indeed completely atoned for the penalty of sin, then though the weight of grief is strong, we choose not add to it the weight of guilt that this is in any way our fault. This is not God’s punishment for some failure; it is His providence for our future, a gift wrapped in darkness that still contains a seed of light.

If Jesus has indeed secured our position of favor with the Father, then not only can we take courage in knowing that “this too shall pass,” but we can also take heart in the truth that the Almighty God of the universe is not only with us in the storm, but is working it into a grander story than we can possibly imagine, a story with a sweeter and more glorious happy ending than our mortal minds can conceive.

Today we choose to believe the Gospel.

– – –
So there they are. Three truths and three choices that help us cope with loss and suffering and pain. Three truths and three choices that are Biblically correct and spiritually sound.

And it’s really, really hard to actually live them out.

Please don’t think that because I share these things, I’ve fully figured them out and am doing just fine. I’m not. We’re not. We are angry and hurt and confused and knocked down – but not destroyed.

This is hard and painful and disorienting and just plain bad – but it is not the end.

Today we choose to trust Jesus and take it one day at a time, and so can you.

– – –
What does this mean practically? It means we take time away to heal. We do not rush through the hallways of the house of mourning, or else we may find ourselves circling back though them longer and later than we would like or need.

No, we take them at their own pace, each turn at whatever angle and speed it requires to truly move past it to the next. We write. We cry. We pray. We cry some more. We talk. We listen. We cry again.

We remember our past dreams and by faith begin slowly to build new ones, starting simply with the dream that someday, somehow, this blood-red thread in our life’s tapestry won’t be so prominent in our view, and will simply be folded in to the background as our life begins to feel normal again.

–Pastor Phillip

Jesus is your sovereign peace

God’s Hope for Your Heart from Colossians 3

JESUS IS YOUR SOVEREIGN PEACE

And let the peace of Christ rule in your heart, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  (Colossians 3:15)

You never saw it coming.

It’s that phone call you never thought you’d receive, that news you never imagined you’d hear.  It’s that conversation you didn’t expect to have, that tragedy you thought could never happen to you.

But it did.

In times of shock and sorrow, it’s all too easy to surrender to the pain.  Despair creeps in, and fear rises up to take control of your heart.

But that is not what God wants for His children!

In Christ, God has promised that no matter what chaos goes on around you, you can experience His peace within you.  He has promised to never leave nor forsake you, so when darkness threatens to take control, you have a choice.

You can let fear rule your heart, or let faith take its place.  You can surrender to despair and let it drown you in sorrow, or surrender to Jesus and let Him lift you in His strength.

When tragedy strikes and you’re feeling overwhelmed, take heart.  Remember that God is still in control, He is still good, and He still loves you.  Fix your eyes on Jesus and let this truth give you power to press on.

Jesus is your sovereign peace.

-Pastor Phillip

Even through loss, God loves you

God’s Hope for Your Heart from Luke 21

EVEN THROUGH LOSS, GOD LOVES YOU

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  (Luke 21:5-6)

The destruction of the Temple was a death-blow to the heart of the people of Israel.  For centuries it had been the focal point of their relationship with their God, and when it was laid waste by Rome in A.D. 70, the loss was devastating.

Jesus knew this when He prophesied the temple’s destruction forty years in advance.  He knew how painful it would be to God’s people to see something they loved and cherished and relied upon so quickly and violently removed.

And He knew it had to be done, because of love.

Jesus knew that with the temple still standing, it would be a great rival for the affection and devotion of God’s people, but that it could never truly give them what they needed.  Only Jesus could save them, redeem them and fulfill them, and if there was another “savior” in the picture they could never be truly saved at all.

So God, in His mercy, let the thing they loved be taken away.

Sometimes, when you experience great tragedy and loss, you may find yourself wondering, “How could a loving God let the thing I love be taken away?”  Many times, though, it is precisely because of His love that He lets things be taken from us, because He knows that if they remain they will prevent us from receiving and walking in the greatest blessing of all – Himself.

May you have the courage to ask Jesus to be always first in your heart and life, and may you have strength to endure when He removes those things that stand in the way of Him answering your prayer.  As you stay faithful, may you find the hope that comes from this essential truth: Even through loss, God loves you.

-Pastor Phillip


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How Jesus loves you through loss

Scripture Notes on Luke 21

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  (Luke 21:5-6)

The destruction of the Temple was a death-blow to the heart of the people of Israel.  For centuries it had been the focal point of their relationship with their God, and when it was laid waste by Rome in A.D. 70, the loss was devastating.

Jesus knew this when He prophesied the temple’s destruction forty years in advance.  He knew how painful it would be to God’s people to see something they loved and cherished and relied upon so quickly and violently removed.

And He knew it had to be done, because of love.

Jesus knew that with the temple still standing, it would be a great rival for the affection and devotion of God’s people, but that it could never truly give them what they needed.  Only Jesus could save them, redeem them and fulfill them, and if there was another “savior” in the picture they could never be truly saved at all.

So God, in His mercy, let the thing they loved be taken away.

Sometimes, when you experience great tragedy and loss, you may find yourself wondering, “How could a loving God let the thing that I love be taken away?”  Many times, though, it is precisely because of His love that He lets things be taken from us, because He knows that if they remain they will prevent us from receiving and walking in the greatest blessing of all – Himself.

May you have the courage to ask Jesus to be always first in your heart and life, and may you have strength to endure when He removes those things that stand in the way of Him answering your prayer.

-Pastor Phillip

Jesus is your sovereign peace

God’s Hope for Your Heart from Colossians 3

JESUS IS YOUR SOVEREIGN PEACE

And let the peace of Christ rule in your heart, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)

You never saw it coming.

It’s that phone call you never thought you’d receive, that news you never imagined you’d hear.  It’s that conversation you didn’t expect to have, that tragedy you thought could never happen to you.

But it did.

In times of shock and sorrow, it’s all too easy to surrender to the pain.  Despair creeps in, and fear rises up to take control of your heart.

But that is not what God wants for His children!

In Christ, God has promised that no matter what chaos goes on around you, you can experience His peace within you.  He has promised to never leave nor forsake you, so when darkness threatens to take control, you have a choice.

You can let fear rule your heart, or let faith take its place.  You can surrender to despair and let it drown you in sorrow, or surrender to Jesus and let Him lift you in His strength.

When tragedy strikes and you’re feeling overwhelmed, take heart.  Remember that God is still in control, He is still good, and He still loves you.  Fix your eyes on Jesus and let this truth give you power to press on.

Jesus is your sovereign peace.

-Pastor Phillip

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God is in complete control

Scripture Notes on Psalm 115

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases. (Psalm 115:2-3)

Do you ever look at a situation and ask “Where is God in this?” Do you ever look at hard things in your life and wonder, “Couldn’t God have stopped that tragedy or prevented that pain?”

It is natural to feel these things, and to experience the frustration of our limited point of view. Yet, there is hope to be had once we have the right perspective.

“Our God is in the heavens” doesn’t mean that He stands far off, aloof and uninterested in human affairs. It means that He is there, watching over you, taking care of you in even the smallest details. It means that God knows.

Not only is He aware, but God is able to do whatever He pleases. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good, and there is no circumstance in your life that He is not able to enter into and transform for the good.

So why do we still have pain? Why doesn’t God just fix things for us instead of allowing us to hurt?

Any number of theological answers can be offered, but underneath them all is this simple truth. Your heavenly Father is far greater in wisdom and goodness than any of us could hope to be. His ways are not our ways, so we may never fully understand this side of heaven. What we can do, though, is look to the cross.

In Christ, God has demonstrated His perfect love for you and for me. When our hearts are filled with that reminder, our minds can be at peace as we rest in this simple truth about our loving God.

God is in complete control.

-Pastor Phillip

How to Survive When Your Armor Fails

How to Survive When Your Armor Fails

It’s times like this I’m grateful for a poor sense of smell.

There it was, sitting in the middle of the grass, an armadillo carcass interrupting the serenity of my morning walk.  I didn’t know what killed it, how long it had been there or how long it would be before someone or something removed the remains.  I was, however, pretty sure of one thing.

The armadillo never expected its armor to fail.

I’m sure it thought (however armadillos actually “think”) that it would be protected inside its little shell.  I’m sure it thought that whatever crisis came its way, it could retreat into the safety of the solution that had protected it so many times before.  I’m sure it thought, “it could never happen to me.”

But it did happen.

One way or another, something always does.

I wish I could say I have nothing in common with the armadillo, but I do.  The truth is that there are things in my own life that I expect to protect me, to insulate me from trouble, to keep me from harm, and I often put more trust in those earthly things than I should.

Maybe it’s the same for you.

Maybe you feel secure because of the size of your bank account or the state of your retirement plan.  Maybe you feel protected because of the accomplishments of your past or your careful planning for the future.  Maybe you tell yourself, “My spouse would never do that” or “my kids will always know better” or “I’m too strong to let that happen to me.”

But something will happen.

Maybe it won’t be the specific thing you expect, but the reality of living in a broken world is this.  For most of us, one way or another something will eventually happen that breaks through our defenses and shakes us to the core.

So, what then?  What will you do, not if, but when your armor fails?

There’s a story in the Bible about a man named Job who lives a righteous life and is richly blessed.  Then one day it all collapses around him.  His wealth and his children, his health and his friends, all of it is broken and taken and Job finds himself with nothing… except this one thing.

Sitting in an ash heap and covered in sores, this is what Job says in the midst of his calamity.  “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”  (Job 13:15a)

How can he say such a thing?  How can he claim hope in the midst of such devastation, when the things in which he trusted have betrayed him and when all that brought him happiness has been taken?

The secret is in one specific thing that Job understands.

The reason for Job’s hope and the way he can survive in the midst of tragedy is found in this conviction.  “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth.”  (Job 19:25)

Job knows that the story is not over yet, and that when it finally is, he will be redeemed.  He knows that the game hasn’t finished yet, but when it finally does, his victory has been secured by someone more able than himself.

Job survives because though his armor has failed him, his Savior still has the last word.

If you want to have hope that is secure in the midst of tragedy, this is the answer.  If you want to have strength that will survive after losses you never thought you could handle, this is the way.

Put your complete trust in Jesus as your Redeemer!  Then remember that He alone has the final word, and if you’re in Christ, that word has already been spoken over you.

Victory!

-Pastor Phillip

(p.s. If you were blessed by this post, please share it with a friend!)

The Silver Thread

When I was a boy, I once let go of a helium balloon, just to see what would happen.

There it went, floating up, up, slowly and silently, gently making its way skyward until it disappeared in the cobalt blue of an open Texas sky.

It was beautiful.

I could not explain what happened, because I was only a small child.

I could not understand what carried the balloon away or where it might go, because such things were to much for me to know as merely a child.

Instead of finding answers, all I could do was look to the sky and trust that someday I might know, but for the moment I must simply let the wonder be enough.

Today a tragedy occurred in our nation.

Children and parents, brothers and sisters and mothers and more were gunned down senselessly at a Connecticut elementary school.

It was terrible.

I cannot explain what happened, because I am only an observer from a thousand empty miles away.

I cannot understand what carried the killer to such a dark place, what brittle supports must have collapsed in his soul to propel him to do such a thing.  Such things are too deep for me to know as merely a man.

Instead of finding answers, all I can do is look to the sky and trust that someday I might know, but for now I must simply let these words be enough…

“In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?”  -Psalm 56:11

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”  -Psalm 36:7

But words don’t stop bullets.

Even worse, if all we have is this life, then even these words from the Psalms truly have no meaning, because today brought a graphic example of “what man can do to me.

Yet, if there is more to our existence than a few tired years under a fading sun, if there is indeed a hope for us beyond the grave, then words like these do have power after all.

They can stop our souls from decaying into bitterness.

They can stop our minds from sinking into despair.

They can stop the bleeding of our hearts, even as they help the tears flow on for healing.

If there is a God whose Word is true, then I can find strength in these, His assurances.

And so can you.

I often imagine there is a silver thread that ties our souls to our bodies.

I see it as a shining thing, like a spiderweb dripping with fresh morning dew, an unseen link that links the temporal to the eternal.

Today, many of those threads were cut.

Yet, the God I know loves children.  The Jesus whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was One who welcomed children into His arms and said this:

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

Today, many silver threads were severed, precious souls cut loose from lifeless bodies, but the Christ I know did not let them slip away.

He was as He always is, true to His Word, and with all my heart I believe that those children were indeed given eternal refuge in the shadow of Almighty God.

May their families find comfort both on this day and in the days to come, and may we all find such refuge in Christ, both now, and when our own silver threads finally become as those children are now…

Free.

The Silver Thread

 

 

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