Monday, January 8, 2018

Change is in the Air!

It's all around us: some good, some not, always bringing the "new"

When you get ready to file your taxes this year, you may discover that the recently passed tax bill will make some changes--many predict they will be good. We'll see.

Your favorite baseball teams have been making off season deals, and the lineup you loved (or hated) will be changed from last year. Will this be an improvement? We'll see.

This will be the first year for some of us without a special loved one around, or with a new baby, or living in a new place, or leaving an old job, or beginning a new one, or starting a new relationship, or... well, dealing with a major life change. Maybe it was one that you sought. Perhaps it has taken you by surprise. In either case it might be welcome, or it might seem tragic.

I know some people who are always looking for new challenges, different experiences, and unfamiliar territory to conquer. There is a fair amount of that in me, although I'd like to pick and choose the areas of life where the challenges occur. Others want things predicable and familiar. Routine is wonderful and safe. I have some of this desire as well. I'm guessing there is a "change spectrum" and all of us fall somewhere along it, trending on direction or the other.

But in this world we must always remember two truths:

1. Things change. It may be slow or fast, and it may be small or large, but change will come. It will come to our bodies with every passing day and year. Since your body's cells are constantly replacing themselves (except in the brain), you probably aren't the person you were a year ago!

Families change, both in make-up and in dynamics. As our kids grow, we leave behind some aspects of family life and gain others. It's not good or bad, it's just different. Of course as children become adults the changes in family life grow ever greater with greater independence.

Circumstances change, and what was perfectly normal and acceptable can become awkward and out of place. Or they can go from uncomfortable to desirable by the addition or subtraction of one or more details. We all know or have heard stories of people who had wonderful jobs with a business, and then the company was purchased, new management came in, and a family spirit was replaced with cost cutting and layoffs. Or think of the person who has suffered in great pain, until a new doctor runs a test and discovers its source and brings a treatment that gives pain free living.

Directions change--not on the compass, but in our lives. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have found themselves thinking they would pursue one path, who have found themselves on another entirely, be it education, career, or relationship.

Churches change, which shouldn't surprise us at all given the fact that they are made up of people who change, and are constantly adding (and sometimes losing) members who have unique gifts and talents. As time passes, methods and programs that were effective at one time are found to be less so because the people they are intended to reach or serve have changed. Churches that built their ministries with buses for kids, Sunday school contests, or door to door visitation have either changed their approaches and methods or died.

Many changes are a mix of good and bad from our human vantage points. When we moved across the country to come to Ohio, we said goodbye to so many people and a church we loved. Our first years here weren't always easy, even with so many who loved and cared for us here from the very start. Change was hard, but has yielded incredible good.

Undoing change is nearly impossible. When I was a fourth grader we moved from our town in Michigan to Cincinnati where my Dad got a master's degree at Xavier. We moved back to our old town after that year, but little was the same. We moved to a different house and even though my parents would set up times for me to see my old friends, the year had led to lots of changes for them, and for me; and let's face it, when you are in fifth grade in a different school the five mile difference from your old life might as well be forever.

Change is necessary. Nothing new comes to be without it. Nothing old comes to an end without creating it. But the new that comes is often shaped by the old that was, even though it's not the same. When dear ones in our church who were a vital part of our lives have moved away, God does not "replace" them. I could name all sorts of people in my church life that caused me to mourn when they told me they were moving to a new town. You can probably think of some, too. No one replaces them in your heart or has exactly the same impact on you. Instead, God brings new people who fill voids we didn't know we had, and help us become what God wants us to be today and prepares us for tomorrow.

Our own church is celebrating God's faithfulness in so many ways--remarkable provisions and providences have left us amazed. As we have thought about all the blessings God has given, our staff has recognized that God must be getting us ready for something, even though we are not sure what that "something" will be. That is why we are calling the church now to a concerted time of prayer (and fasting) as the year begins (You can go to our church website to learn more about this, starting next week). But one thing we can be sure of is that this will mean changes will come. I don't know what they will be, and I'm sure some of them will make me (maybe all of us) uncomfortable at times.

This should not frighten us, but excite us that God may well have some amazing new opportunities to serve him here and throughout the world in store. Why should we not be afraid? That's the second truth we must remember.

2. Our God does not change. His word is settled forever. From forever to forever he is God. Because he does not change his people are not destroyed. His promises are unchanging even as his mercies are new every morning. His righteousness is forever. He is the faithful and true One.

He doesn't change, but he seems to love it--in fact, he will not let evil continue unchecked, injustice go unpunished, or abandon his people forever, even when it seems times are tough. Our God is the One who won't let sin, decay, and death win, but instead says, "Look, I am making all things new!"

That "newness" begins when we see ourselves--our "old" self--as sinful, lost, broken, and in need of forgiveness and grace. We see that God is true and right and good and just and merciful, and we cry out for him. We see Jesus, his Son, on the cross, dying for our sin, taking our place under God's wrath, and we ask him to save us. We ask God to replace the lies we've believed with truth, to turn us around and head us toward him, to change us. And he does. We call it being made a "new creation"--and God sends his Spirit into us to bring about that great change from old paths to newness of life. That change is the most important one of all, and how I pray you have experienced it!

In the meantime, before all is finally made new,  he does not leave his people without purpose in the present or hope for the future. He calls us to trust him to use the realities of the present to prepare us for a glorious future. He sometimes acts slowly from our perspective, when we would want change faster. And sometimes he brings changes we don't feel ready for. But because he has already declared the ending of the story before it began, and because of his fierce love for his people, we can breathe in the air of change with confidence now, and the promise of an eternally better future. We can love and celebrate what we have had in the past--and even mourn the loss of what we loved about those days. But we can always look forward to "better"--whether it is in the new tasks and challenges and opportunities God will provide (along with the hardships they will bring), or ultimately when we enter into the "new things" God creates at the culmination of history. And then, brothers and sisters, don't think change comes to an end.  Oh no! We will be living in the presence of the infinite God who will forever be unfolding new things to us-- a million years from now, I believe God will be showing us yet another new thing that will cause us to marvel and praise and go, "Wow, I never would have guessed that!"

Change is in the air. Breathe.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Common Graces

Our desire to see God work may obscure when he does so

So many times in our lives we find ourselves in need, or hurting, or questioning, and we want to see God help us:
"Show me the way, Lord."
"Help me to feel better about this."
"Please take the pain away."
"I need your comfort today."
"I won't make it without your grace, Lord."
Such requests are normal, and should be asked--after all, God tells us to cast our anxieties upon him, to ask for what we need, and to pray without ceasing.

However, I think we sometimes miss it when he answers these prayers. And a book our pastoral team is reading reminded me why this is so.

I like to have our staff read through books that will help us think about matters related to serving the church, and recently we've been reading one about how people grow. Written by a counselor, it is saying all the right things, but in language that is different than pastors normally use, and that makes it catch our attention. The last chapter we discussed talked about how God's plans for our growth involve people--the body of Christ. The author makes the point that such prayers as those above are often prayed with the hope that God will somehow supernaturally show up and miraculously tell us what to do, dispense a miracle cure, or give us a divine hug and an "attaboy (or girl), you can do it!" But that is not how God works.

Instead, God puts his people in our lives, who bring the grace that we need. The author illustrates with the story of a man who lacked self discipline and kept creating a serious problem for himself. His solution? Pray, and ask God to heal him of his problem. The man told his Christian friend about his problem, and the friend guided him toward good counsel, accountability, and a network of people who continued to encourage, check up on, and otherwise move the sufferer in the right direction. After a period of time, the man with the problem realized that it was gone. He was happy, but just a bit disappointed that God hadn't healed him. But God had healed him--through the lives and gracious ministry of the body of Christ.

That is how God usually does his work--not by divine, direct intervention, but through members of the Body exercising their graces and gifts on behalf of others. You are hurting and your prayer is for comfort. How is God most likely to bring it? Not by you going off by yourself and waiting for a heavenly hug. Rather, it will most likely come by you engaging with your spiritual community, sharing your hurt, and letting them love on you. That is not a substitute for God's comfort, it is its supply through his people. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that God comforts us in all our affliction, and that we can then comfort others. Notice that we comfort others, which means God's comfort comes through people. And while God certainly can and does give special experiences of assurance of his presence and comfort, even Paul mentions at various times that he was comforted by the coming of certain people when he needed them, or receiving certain news when he was distressed for people--in short, God's comfort isn't just a supernatural "zapping," but is usually through God's people doing what we should do as we see those around us in hard circumstances.

So the next time you pray a prayer that comes from a deep sense of need, may I encourage you to do so from a place where you are in close proximity to the rest of the Body of Christ and being honest about your situation? Because in those circumstances you are in a position for God to answer that prayer in the way he normally does--through his people.