I have been listening to a podcast and an audio book this week that are gnawing at my brain. The podcast is called the Western Huntsman (no surprise to those who know me) and the audio book is A Burning in My Bones, a biography of one of my spiritual mentors, Eugene Peterson.
Each of them has sparked some thinking and ruminations in my mind, and stirred a grief in my soul.
The podcast was speaking of the division in the hunting community that occurs on social media and among our rank and file over literally everything. We debate over the type of boots we wear, the ammunition we use, the firearms and the bows we choose denigrating those who do not think like us. The same sentiment was weaving its way through the tail end of Peterson’s biography as he resisted the move within Evangelicalism to attack and to war against anything that didn’t look like us. (My summary).
There is so much in the world that divides. There are so many opportunities to attack nameless, faceless dragons whose philosophy is deadly to the soul, to conservation, to my tribe, to my way of life. (*tounge firmly planted in cheek*) It is so easy to type wildly and madly into our phones or on our computers vilifying those who don’t think like us, look like us, talk like us, dress like us, use the products we use…all without consequence. Topping it off, when we hit “send” we are awash in a superior sense of self-righteousness knowing I did my part to fend off evil. (*dripping with sarcasm*)
The animosity, the vitriol, the anger grieves my heart. Watching Christians (and sports people) devour one another with malice, anger, and bitterness deeply saddens me.
For the last week or so, I have been thinking about Jesus and Zacchaeus.
You see, Jesus was passing by and Zacchaeus, being aerially challenged, needed a better vantage point to see the Lord. So, Zacchaeus climbed up in a sycamore tree to see better.
Now understand, Zacchaeus represented EVERYTHING that was wrong with humanity. He was a tax-collector for the Romans. No one was lower in ordinary folk’s estimation than one of their own who would turn on them, collect taxes for the oppressor, and be sure to line his own pockets in the process. For most, Zacchaeus was beneath contempt, notice, or esteem.
Yet, Jesus stopped under the sycamore tree and invited Zacchaeus to come down, to go to Zacchaeus’s house to share a meal. Jesus entered the life of an untouchable. Jesus welcomed him. Jesus talked with Zacchaeus. Jesus broke bread with Zacchaeus. Jesus HEARD Zacchaeus. Jesus, while espousing NONE of Zacchaeus’s values had compassion and moved into Zacchaeus’s world. Jesus offered love, friendship, conversation, and he treated Zacchaeus with dignity.
And Zacchaeus world was turned upside down.
We have lost the ability, in our churches, pews, homes, and world to see the other… we refuse to enter their world and try to understand where they are coming from, to see their view point. We rally around our flags, trumpet our rhetoric and decry the downfall of our civilization as we know it. With our actions we communicate, “If you don’t think like I do, you can go to hell!” And we wrap ourselves in self-righteous glory in doing so.
It makes me sad.
We look less and less like our master everyday.
I wonder how things might change if we intentionally, compassionately, put down our phones and computers and entered into the life of another. If we genuinely and openly engaged someone in conversation who doesn’t hold our values. I wonder what might be different if we treated everyone we encounter with dignity, respect, and dare I say it, love.
I pray that we can recover civility. I pray that we can embrace the value of others. For God’s sake…
Today, I am carrying a very special pocket knife. The knife is a Case Easter Commemorative from five or six years ago. The knife was given to me on Easter Sunday the year it was issued by a very special friend and hunting buddy, David (Sappy) Sapp. Dave and I enjoyed many hours together in the woods hunting, talking, sharing, celebrating God’s creation. We dragged out and processed many deer together. We shared a love of racing and God’s great outdoors. I ministered to Dave when his grandson passed from this life years ago.
This pocket knife has been one of the “Sunday carry” knifes I rotate through each week.
The reason I am carrying it today, a weekday, and carried it yesterday was Dave passed away Monday morning, from Covid-19.
I am carrying this knife both in honor of my friend, and as a way to cope with the sadness and the grief that fills my heart this morning. I find I have a deep, overwhelming sadness as I hear of each new passing. Dave, while being the closest friend I have that has passed from Covid, is one of perhaps a dozen friends, and too many dear friends have CONTRACTED Covid-19.
It is also not lost on me that on Monday morning, I got my annual flu vaccine. I also updated my DPT vaccine. A couple of years ago, I received the two-shot shingles vaccine. When I was a baby, I received a polio vaccine, the small-pox vaccine, the measles vaccine, and the whooping cough vaccine. I don’t know what was in those vaccines either. I do know I haven’t contracted the measles. I haven’t suffered with polio. I haven’t been infected with the shingles, small pox, or whooping cough.
Understand, I have been accused of not being political enough. My counter is that my politic is one of the the Kingdom of God. My politic is informed by the calling to live incarnationally in this world, embodying the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone God gives me the opportunity. As such, I believe out calling is to live our life in love for the good of others. (I will be preaching on this passage on the Sunday before Veteran’s Day.) What I am about to say is driven out of love, out of concern for people I love, and for the congregation I serve, and grief at having lost entirely too many people I love.
Please, for the good of those around you, for the good of the world, and for your own good…get vaccinated against Covid-19. The grief you save may be your own family’s.
Reprinted from Grace and Peace Magazine (Issue 11, Winter 2015)
Rev. Art Roxby, Pastor of Christ Center Wesleyan Church, author
Created: 08 January 2015
For months I felt like I had been pounding my head against a brick wall. I was doing everything I had ever been taught to do in order to see my church grow. For fifteen years, I had seen the churches I served grow both in worship attendance and in membership. Decline was something I had never experienced in one year, let alone successive years. Each new district assembly served to highlight the decline. Other churches grew. Why not mine?
I read the most current literature. I engaged in conversations with colleagues. I imagined the church growing and thriving, climbing to the next size structure. We should be averaging 150 in worship. We should be building a new family ministry center. We should be the new hot and amazing church in the area—yet, we were not.
We were declining. Finances were tight. There was no new building. The realities of my vocational success were insignificant. A cloud of depression hung over me. Slowly, without the notice of others, I surrendered to feelings of hopelessness. Everything my colleagues were, I was not. I was not a successful pastor. I did not serve a successful church. I was a failure. Each district assembly reinforced my failure as a pastor-leader.
During the throes of my faith crisis, I read and studied about how small churches recovered from being stalled or in decline. Over time, an epiphany occurred. It was not a burning bush, but it was clear. I had unwittingly surrendered to a faulty measure of success defined by American consumerism: Success equaled more. The goals set for ministry, and ultimately the yardstick against which I measured my perceptions of success, had more to do with the numbers that we throw around at clergy meetings (noses in worship, dollars in the plate, and the size and additions to our buildings) than what appeared to be most significant in the body of Christ. Perhaps I was encouraging my congregation to pursue the next size barrier more than I was inviting them to be formed in Christ. Perhaps I remained too focused on the positive feelings I experienced when others recognized me for the growth of my church, rather than for the spiritual presence of Christ we experienced as we gathered for worship. It took the crucible of several years of decline for me to realize success in the kingdom is measured differently than success at the corner of Wall Street and Main Street.
Other churches grew. Why not mine? -Art Roxby
Grappling with this new insight, I reflected on the ministry of my declining church over the previous years. At one point, I realized that many of the teens who left the community to go to college had not left the church of Jesus Christ. They had merely changed locations of worship and were ministering to the world. The church had nurtured and formed several who were actively engaged in vocational ministry. Members were still being called to ministry. Although numbers were declining (as was the population of the community around them), the church was making a difference in the world. That is when God spoke to me about the ultimate measure of success in ministry and in his kingdom: faithfulness.
This began a journey. I searched the Scriptures, seeking to understand how the early church assessed participation in God’s mission. Early Christians understood themselves as successful when they lived out God’s calling in their lives—individually and corporately. Success came from new believers finding faith in Jesus Christ, of widows being cared for, and disciples finding maturity in their faith. Interestingly, I discovered that, in the book of Acts, the only mention of numbers is in relation to the activity of the Holy Spirit moving upon people who knew the power of the resurrected Christ and were baptized. The use of quantifiable numbers never referred to the number of people who attended worship services. Faithfulness was measured in terms of the mission that God had given to his church—to be living witnesses and to make disciples.
Faithfulness is Making Disciples
It is far too easy to forget that Jesus did not call us to build a big church or to create slick new ministries. Jesus did not call us to be the popular church or the most-loved leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. He called us, both as leaders and as churches, to pour our lives into people. We are called to create sacred space where people find Christ, and where the nominal believer comes closer to Christ. God uses us to create the environment in which believers can grow and mature in their faith and become the witnesses that we are all called to be.
Faithfulness is Responding to the Brokenness of the World
In the early days of the Church of the Nazarene, local churches had compassionate ministries that sought to alleviate the hunger, suffering, and pain of people in the communities where they lived. Worship spaces were designed so that everyone might experience a sense of welcoming and belonging in the worship space. Nazarenes located themselves in the neighborhoods overlooked by many, or defined as poor or dangerous. After World War II, perhaps as the church grew in social stature, it sometimes moved to the suburbs. In doing so, the church may have misread the compass giving direction to participation in the missio dei.
The image of the early church in the book of Acts finds a people holding their possessions so loosely that they could sell what they had to care for the needs of the poor and the underprivileged. The early Christians laid hands on the sick, the unclean, the broken, and the blind. Through their faith and prayers, all manners of illnesses and even death were healed. This is faithful participation in the missio dei. As followers of Jesus Christ, we too are called to respond to the broken, the hurting, the lonely, and the infirmed in our world today.
Faithfulness in Prayer
The early Christians were people of prayer. They spent significant time in intense, corporate prayer meetings. Jesus repeatedly stole away from the crowd to spend time with God in prayer. The miraculous outpourings of the Holy Spirit came in response to the humbled, gathered church bowing before God in prayer. Prayer was the central factor in the power of the early church.
As a fire exists by burning, so the Church exists by mission.
Far too few Christians and churches today spend significant time in corporate prayer. We have long prayer lists for many things, but all too often we are not given to the discipline of joining together corporately in both large and small groups to pray for the renewal of our churches, for salvation of the lost, and for disciples to grow in grace, knowledge, and the power of the Spirit of God. The result is a weak and lukewarm group of nominal believers who make little difference. If we are to realize our unique calling as the body of Christ, we must return to faithful, ongoing prayer.
Faithfulness in Mission
Much has been made lately of the centrality of mission. Theologian Emil Brunner once said, “As a fire exists by burning, so the Church exists by mission.” We are charged to carry out the message and hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our local communities and in the world as a whole. Success may only be measured in terms of our faithfulness to that mission.
The realization that faithfulness to our real calling is the true measurement of success was both liberating to me and sobering. It would be easier for me to create a program that people found pleasing and exciting, to which they would want to invite their friends. Living in the story of Christ and leading my congregation to move into that story is in some ways more difficult. However, the understanding that my pastoral “success” and the church’s “success” are really only measured by God released me from the tyranny of living for nickels and noses and challenged me to pursue the only goal worth pursuing, making a difference in the world for the cause of Jesus Christ. It may be time to remember that we live the economy of the kingdom—not the economy of Wall Street and Main Street.
My prayer is that you too might find liberation in the calling of Jesus Christ.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like coffee. Well, to be perfectly honest, I like GOOD coffee. I tend to enjoy bold, dark roasts that are done with premium beans from ethically sourced producers. I drink my coffee black and enjoy the deep rich notes of the roast.
Please understand, the way I like to enjoy my coffee the most is sitting in my lounger watching the sun come up in the mountains somewhere…or alongside a cool mountain trout stream. I really savor drinking in the mountain views while drinking the coffee whose beans I just ground to release their goodness. The stillness and the warmth of the coffee still my mind and renew the inner parts of my soul.
The ability to drink coffee in an unhurried manner, in a pastoral kind of setting is a mini-sabbath for me. My morning coffee is a renewing time for me. That unhurried time is a time for me to focus on the inner state of my being. In the stillness of the moment, I am able to tune into the voice of God and know the leading and directing more fully. Those times when I can drink in the sounds of nature, the aroma of my coffee mingled with a mountain stream clear my head and remind me of the priority of stillness and sabbath for a disciple.
As followers, we must create those sabbath-keeping rituals when God can renew our spirits, can speak into our souls, can lead us deeper into our understanding of the Kingdom and God’s word. Sabbath keeping is not only important to our souls, it is VITAL. The hurried soul quickly loses connection with God and God’s voice in our life. The hectic pace we keep pushes God aside, unsettles our spirit and disorients the peace that God would give.
If there is one piece of advice I could give disciples of Jesus, it is keep Sabbath. Find those times when you can be still and quiet in the presence of God. Create those holy moments of sacred space where you can clearly hear the voice of God and know the renewing work of God’s Holy Spirit. Coffee in the mountains might not be your thing, but create space for God to remind you that you are a beloved child of God. Make time for that renewing, reorienting, experience with God.
During the past week, several things have come together to have me thinking about some deeper things of life. I have spent most of the last week alone…Allyson has been in the east, visiting our daughters and their families. Last Sunday I preached on the book of Revelation…”The End is Near!” On top of that, in my community and in my state there have been two horriffic and unexpected tragedies.
All of those circumstances have intersected to have me thinking about the life have been given and how we live that life each day.
You see, I am a firm believer that each of our lives is a gift from God. We are created in God’s image and a reflection of God’s creative grace. What we do with these lives God gives us is an act of worship and thanksgiving that we return to him. However, the event of the past week have reminded me of how transient and brief these lives often are. We have no guarantee of our next breath, let alone next week, next month, or next year.
Now, I am not meaning to sound or become maudlin or gloomy. You see the awareness of the transience of our earthly existence should motivate us to live life differently. To treasure the experiences wee have in this life. If we lived as if this moment was the only ting of which we are guaranteed, the moment and the people in it become a treasure and a gift of God’s grace. If we really were not sure that we would be here tomorrow, so many things that we take for granted, we would no longer take for granted; and some things that, in the moment we deem of ultimate importance, suddenly seem insignificant.
I wonder how differently we would live our lives if we made a commitment to live present in each moment, to cherish each interpersonal encounter as something of eternal significance, and each person someone of inestimable value. I wonder what things we might decide NOT to do or say and what kinds of things we might joyfully embrace and cherish.
I invite you to make a commitment today to live mindfully and be totally present in each experience, in every conversation and each moment. After all, this breath, this moment, this day is a gift from the creator savior God who lives in each moment with us.
This week I had two completely unrelated events converge to get me thinking about some things. The first of those events happened in Phoenix. On Tuesday evening, Allyson and I, Kyle, Sara, and the Kids, and a family from the Church went to a Diamondbacks Game at Chase Field (D-backs playing my Pittsburgh Pirates). While I was waiting for the couple from my church, just outside the ticket office, there was a “street preacher” shouting his message into a megaphone the message of sin, judgment, and how much God hates sin…as well as how hot hell will be, and that they had better get ready for the heat. He had other choice things to say about Covid, politics, and so forth. But the message was pretty clear…and aimed (literally) right at people as they entered the stadium.
On Wednesday, I came across a tweet from an author who I value greatly, who speaks to the mission of the Church and difficulties the western church has in reaching the current culture with the message of the gospel. Alan Hirsch, author of The Forgotten Ways, and 5Q: Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ, offered this observation in a tweet:
All factors point to signs that Christianity is in decline in the West. We must own the fact that the way we live out our faith is culpable, at least in some part. A domesticated, tamed version of Christianity that is mired in the same wants, desires, and traps of the watching world yields no appeal. Missional movements flourish because a group of peoplehave been changed by Jesus, and the change is made abundantly clear through living in an alternative Jesus-like society of love, grace, and generosity. For most of us, this means we must simply begin to step out beyond our self-imposed barriers of safety and security and risk, joining the Holy Spirit in what God is doing in our neighborhoods and cities.
As I juxtaposed these two experiences, I can’t help but think how the “Church” relates to the culture and society in which we live. We are great at telling people what we are against, what is evil, how sinful they are and how much God hates what they are doing. We are great at separating ourselves from the lost, the derelict, the lonely, the underclass, the addict, the immigrant, those opposed to us… We create a greater and greater gap telling them how much God hates what they are doing.
We are HORRIBLE at practicing incarnational witness…the very practice of Jesus. Jesus came seeking out the lost. Jesus entered into the lives of the lost, the hurting, the untouchable, the marginalized. With love in his eyes, and no hint of condemnation, Jesus entered into their journey and spoke the healing words of the gospel that “God is Love” and has provided the means for wholeness in Jesus.
As I sat on the hot slab of concrete outside Chase Field, I watched the people’s reactions to the “Preacher.” Some shook their heads. Some laughed. Some blew him off. Others looked pained. I wondered what Jesus they might be meeting in that moment. I wondered who would share the Jesus of the Gospels with them. I wondered what barrier that experience might create for those people to encounter the loving, healing, restoring embrace of the Savior.
I wonder if we might not take a lesson from Jesus. I challenge those who call themselves followers to leave their padded pews and holy huddles…and go into the world. Enter into the lives of the people around you. Love them with Jesus love…share the Savior who embraces sinners, who loves, who has compassion. Introduce them to the Savior.
Maybe, just maybe…we can stop being the barrier to Jesus…
Recently, the Verde Valley, where I live, has been filled with smoke. There have been a number of wildfires in the surrounding area that have burned over 100,000 acres. Due to the topography of our area and the direction of the wind, smoke from those fires will literally fill our valley. At one and the same time, it has been terrifying and impressive.
As I was driving into my study one morning, I became aware that I could not see the Red Rocks of Sedona, just 18 miles away because of the heavy smoke. Now, understand, each day this is a treasured part of my journey, admiring the beauty and the grandeur of the area in which I live and thanking God for God’s creative handiwork. Not being able to see the Rocks was mildly disorienting.
As I drove northeast on Route 89A, I meditated on not being able to see my destination. I was reminded, that although I could not SEE where I was going, my destination lie on the route provided for me. The smoke that obscured my vision did not change the objective fact that the Red Rocks were there. While my vision was blocked, the objective reality of where I was going remained the same.
So many times circumstances of our life obscure our vision, disorient our senses and cause us consternation. We may even wonder if God is there. The reality is that even thought the circumstances would confuse us, the reality of God’s presence does not change. During those times when our vision is clouded, our task is to remain on the course charted for us. We must not deviate either left or right. Stay the course.
I don’t know what challenges you are facing today. Let me assure you that God cares, God is there, and God will guide your paths. Stay the course!
As I write this post, today is Ash Wednesday. All over the world, Christians (or better yet followers of Jesus) are coming together some in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evening to mark the beginning of Lent.
For many followers, Ash Wednesday has never been celebrated. In my own life, our more than legalistic, rabidly free-church tradition, looked with great suspicion on anything that smacked of liturgy, ritual, and formal expression of faith. High church traditions were spurned in favor of more ecstatic expressions of the faith. As such, I missed out on some powerful experiences with God.
I am rediscovering these traditions in my adult years.
Today, I have been preparing the Ash Wednesday service for my parish, Christ Center Wesleyan Church. As such, I have been reading the scripture from the prophet Joel, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2.12-13 NRSV) I will be delivering a homily on those words this evening and immediately following, as celebrant, I will be imposing ashes on the foreheads or the hands of those who will received them. As I trace the cross on my congregants, I will say these words, “Remember, from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.”
As I have been meditating on the practice, I am reminded that Ash Wednesday brings sharply into focus my standing before God. All too often, as I journey through this life, things conspire to cloud that standing and relationship. It is all too easy to focus on me, on my priorities, my plans, my wants and needs. The philosophy and priority of this fallen world creep in and tempt me to view this world as my accomplishment, my priority, and my work a product of my strength.
By hearing the words, deep in my soul, and feeling the abrasion of the ashes on my forehead, I am reminded that I only have life in relationship to the God who formed me from ashes (dust). It was God, in mercy and love, who breathed the breath into my lungs…and into my spirit. It is God who orders my days. One day this earthly form will return to its requisite elements (to dust) all that will remain in the life God gives me.
When I realize my proper standing before God, I am moved to penitence, to repentance, and to return to right standing before God.
My prayer for each person who reads this is that this Lenten Season will be a time of renewal, of refocus, of returning to God with all our hearts. Remember, from ashes you have come, and to ashes you will return.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I pause, from my ordinary content to share some personal blessings.
On January 8th, my daughter Caitlin, and her husband Brandon, gifted us with a brand new little bundle of joy. Our first grandson came into the world at 7 pounds 12 ounces and 19.5 inches long. He has a beautiful head of hair, a strong cry and is growing too fast. He joins our other precious grandchildren, cousins Maddie and Evie.
Since that wonderful Friday morning, I have been thinking of all three of my grandkids and am amazed at how full my heart is. I love to hear their laughter. I take or download countless pictures of each one of them. I talk to them on the phone. I can’t wait to take them camping, fishing, hunting, or to their first races. I buy them books, read them books, dote on them like a grandfather should. They are, quite literally, the apple of PopPop’s eye.
Even more so, I stop and thank God for such precious gifts. Each child has his or her own unique and distinct personality. Each is growing and healthy. Each is testament to the creative power and love of God.
James 1.17 affirms for us, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (NASB)
There are times for me when it is easy to thank God for God’s perfect gifts. Each time I look at my grandchildren, marvel over the miracle of a baby’s hand, and see a new milestone achieved, I thank God for God’s good gifts and blessings in my life.
When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
I am, at heart, a fairly driven person. My life is frequently lived out with “to do” lists written in my daily journal and on my computer or my cell phone. I have a regular routine and a rigid schedule. I like my days to go according to a routine that I set, schedule, and plan. I feel like I am at my best when I can accomplish my list of tasks for the day and get done what needs to get done.
The problem is I get interrupted. When I am in my study, the phone will ring, someone will drop by and want to chat, or my cell phone will play its loon notification note to tell me I have a text, an instant message, or an alert. Emergencies will arise. Oftentimes I will be engaged in something that I feel is terribly important and I will get a call to go and try to help someone that may or may not want or need my help.
That was the case recently. I was preparing for special services and had a rather tight deadline. I was working furiously to accomplish my “To Do” when the phone rang. I answered and found that a need was being presented to me. I left the office and spent a couple of hours with the person. When that time was over, I felt as though I had wasted my time. It was in the middle of my inner tantrum that God reminded me of a powerful lesson he had taught me a long time ago.
In Exodus 3, Moses is going about the duties he had as a shepherd. He was caring for his sheep and goats, leading them to water, protecting them, leading ot shelter and the best grass when something new and different caught his attention. Of course, you know what he saw was a bush burning, but not being burned up. Verse 4 of chapter three says that Moses turned aside to see this thing. In other words, Moses day was interrupted and there in his interruption, Moses had an encounter with God.
God reminded me that frequently God is encountered in the interruptions of our day and the most significant ministry often occurs on God’s time rather than ours. Interruptions become sacred spaces where the Holy Spirit can move, can speak, and can lead us into areas of God’s choosing. Interruptions are oftentimes the REAL opportunity for ministry.
Now, please understand, I still have to watch my own spirit and heart when I am interrupted. But when I stop to consider what God is doing, the margins where my agenda is intersected with God’s agenda become the most fruitful times in life.
I would encourage you, the next time you are interrupted and find yourself irritated because of the distraction, ask the question, “Where is God in this time? What is God trying to teach me? Or What does God want me to do here?”
You may just find your own “burning bush” experience. Anyway, that’s just my meanderings!