Waiting can be difficult

Waiting can be difficult.

I remember as a kid searching the house between thanksgiving and Christmas hoping to discover a cache of gifts. I plead the 5th regarding whether I ever succeeded, or whether I may or may not have unwrapped, opened and played with, and rewrapped and rehid any gifts.

I remember sitting in doctors’ offices fidgeting, doing the “seek and find” puzzle in Highlights Magazine.

Do you have trouble waiting?

My observation is that portable multimedia technology makes it even more difficult for us to be patient while we wait. Many of us will reach for a cell phone or other device if more than 30 seconds passes between activities. How often do you see people at stoplights or even in slow traffic checking email or Facebook?

Advent is the time in the Christian Year during which we practice waiting as a spiritual discipline. And honestly, we are not very good at it much of the time. We want to sing Christmas Carols rather than Advent hymns. We want to already see the baby Jesus in the manger weeks before our Christmas Eve service.

If the Christian faith wants to teach us any kind of discipline in our lives, it is that of waiting well. Since the Lord first visited Abram and Sarai, the promise came to be fulfilled for a future generation. The gift to them was the hope that their descendants would be blessed to be a blessing. Granted, Abram and Sarai would also benefit and experience joy. The true gift remained for generations yet to be. 200 years later Jacob and his sons move to Egypt. Another 400 years and the 12 tribes of Hebrews left Egypt to begin their 40 year journey to the Promised Land. Thus the land was finally given to Abraham’s descendants more than 600 years after it was first promised. And even then, it would take generations for the land to be fully occupied.

Likewise, from the time of the Babylonian and Assyrian conquests of Israel and Judah another 600 years passes before the messiah arrives to fulfill promises made by Isaiah, Micah and other prophets. Waiting is inherent in our faith.

Jesus repeatedly promises a coming kingdom and a second coming of the messiah, the timing of which seems fluid. We hear things like, “You will not pass through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Mt 10:23), and, “Not all of these will pass before the son of man comes” (Matthew 16:28).

Similarly, regarding the Kingdom of Heaven/God:

  • “The Kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21)
  • “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:2)
  • “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God,” (LK9:27)

The times appear to stretch and collapse. This is the “already / not yet” nature of our faith.

The same applies when we talk about salvation – we have been saved, we are being saved, we shall be saved. All are equally true simultaneously, though they appear to be contradictory.

We are waiting for something which we already have received. Paul uses the language of “first fruits” to describe this experience:

  • “we have the first fruits of the spirit while we await [the completion of our] adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rm 8:23)
  • “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Cor 15)

The question is then:

“Can there be any Christian Faith without waiting?”
“If we remove waiting from the Christian Faith, what is left?”

Repentance as preparation


Pastor’s Study 03/2012

Jesus’ disciples went to the upper room after the ascension – 40 days after Easter (Matthew 28, Luke 24 & Acts 1). They went because Jesus had sent them there to wait, for the coming of the promised gift of power from on high – the gift of the Spirit from the Father. Jesus did not tell them how long they would have to wait, or what to do in the meantime. He just said, “Go, and wait.”

So what are we doing? We are waiting for the revealing of God’s good gift, the revealing of God’s dream for us as God promises in Jeremiah 29. And while we wait for the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are praying. We also enter now with Jesus into this Wilderness Season. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness between slavery in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Similarly Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness between his baptism and affirmation (which marked his exodus from secular life) and his entry into the promised blessing of ministry.

This season of 40 is a time of preparation, strengthening, and repentance. The word repent literally means to turn around. It refers not only to repentance from sin, but any turning from one direction to another – one focus or way of living to another. Whether or not we sense some great sin in our lives, we all have room for a turning toward LIGHT and away from darkness.

I wonder if, as we wait for God’s revealing, there is not some repentance need in our common life? From what do we as individuals, households, and congregation need to turn? How have we been focused away from God toward self or other things? How have we failed in the past without returning to properly repent, confess, and seek to be reconciled and to make amends? Remember, it may not be a grave sin, such as that for which David is repenting in Psalm 51 (the murder of Uriah and taking of Bathsheba). Instead, it may simply have been a short sightedness, a small selfishness or pettiness that prevented us from loving others as Christ loves us – that’s probably a pretty long list, if we are to be honest with ourselves.

You might ask, “Do we really have to dredge all of that up?” Great question. Do we need to drag it all out in public? No, I suspect that wouldn’t be healthy or helpful. Do we each need to go back over the past years and see where we have wronged others, either intentionally or not, by what we have done or failed to do? Yes, absolutely. Should we always go to that person to address the failing? No – not if doing so would cause further injury (for instance, if we have reason to believe that they have moved on with their lives and relationships in healthy ways that would be disrupted by our intrusion). This may not be something you can figure out on your own – you may want a spiritual conversation partner or confessor in that process – your elders are here to minister to you in that way, and others you trust may also serve that function.

Either way, I believe that one obstacle to our experiencing the full Holy Spirit revealed power of God’s dream for us is the presence of these past failures. The point of all this is not guilt, shame and self-loathing. Rather, it is freedom. We are invited to receive God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace in love as we draw near to Jesus and live as his disciples. I urge you to take this Lenten season to repent (turn around) from selfish, small minded and unhealthy ways of thinking, speaking and acting. Instead, through prayer, study, conversation and worship, turn toward God’s will for you as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whom we follow as Lord and Savior.

May the love of Christ inspire us all – In Him – Ken


Some Thoughts on Repentance

Last Sunday I shared some very personal reflections on my own practice of repentance. (see: http://kengcrawford.com/2012/03/05/no-one-is-beyond-hope/ ) Repentance is not just about guilt over big sins. It is also our daily humility to realize that we are not all we are created and called to be, and to confess that to ourselves, God, and one another. We admit that we fell short (a literal definition of ‘sin’ is ‘to fall short’ or ‘to miss the mark’). We ask forgiveness and make amends where to do so would not cause greater harm. This is difficult. We feel stupid and embarrassed or worse when we have to admit that we aren’t perfect. I think one of the absolute best things I do to strengthen my marriage is return to Laura if I have been short tempered and say, “I’m sorry. That’s not who I want to be or how I want to treat you. What I meant to say was…” It’s not easy to do, but it gets easier each time. Like many things, repentance gets easier with practice. We’ll always need to do it, so we might as well get on with it.

You may have also heard me say, “I’m not mean or vindictive or hateful. I can be short sighted, distracted, or stupid. But if I do or say something that you experience as hurtful, it’s not motivated by a desire to hurt, but by one of those other things. That may not ease the sting, but hopefully it eases the reconciliation. And hopefully you’ll be willing to say, “I felt hurt/angered/etc. by what you said/did/failed-to-do.” I may not like to hear that at first, but I certainly do want to hear it.

The fact that others have seemingly chosen to ‘forgive and forget’ does not absolve us of the responsibility of confession, repentance and restoration. The fact is that God chooses to not hold our sins against us – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are not thereby freed from the need to confess and repent before God. Our sin, and our guilt and brokenness over it, is a barrier between ourselves and God. Remember how you felt when as a child you did something wrong but were afraid to come clean. The kinder and more loving others were, the more you hurt. The barrier was on your side, not theirs, and you were the one who had to act, had to apologize, in order to be freed to receive the love that they had for you. The same is true of our relationships with God and one another, and even with ourselves.

People often ask what is different about followers of Jesus. Part of what should be different is that we understand and practice grace and mercy in a particular way. Paul tells us, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us,” (Romans 5:8) and “Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we have also been given the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What God has given us – grace, mercy, forgiveness – we also are to give one another and the world. I am to love you while you are yet sinners. We are to love the world while they are yet sinners. We are to practice reconciliation, which starts with the offended, not with the offender. We don’t wait for others to apologize before we forgive, because God did not wait for us to repent before we were redeemed and forgiven (restored into relationship). This is not easy – perhaps not possible without God’s help through the Holy Spirit. It is not what our flesh wants to do, but it is what the Spirit asks of us.

Does this mean we put ourselves in situations knowing others will hurt us? Not necessarily. We are not called to remain victims in abusive or dangerous situations. We are called to seek reconciliation before writing others off and washing our hands of them. Staying in an abusive situation enables the sin of the abuser and is not an act of love, forgiveness, mercy or grace. Moreover, when we separate ourselves from that unhealthy situation we are better able to practice these virtues. The space gives us the freedom to love, and gives the other person freedom to move toward healing.

One reason we need Christian community is because this work is so difficult – we need to be reminded, encouraged, challenged, and helped to forgive and to repent. We proclaim a God who loves us enough to experience the incarnation and crucifixion. Do we practice that faith? What does our treatment of others say about what we really believe? That we are worthy of God’s forgiveness, but no one is worthy of ours? We pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4); we are asking God to make the forgiveness we receive conditional on and proportional to the forgiveness we give. How frightening is that for you?

We need to practice both forgiveness and repentance – they are two sides of the same coin. If we practice one without the other, we are really just trying to manipulate God and others. We are not acting honestly and we are not acting in love. If I consistently forgive others but never repent, then I am presuming an arrogant superiority – they need to be forgiven, but I don’t. If I am repentant but never forgiving, then again I am being arrogant – “I deserve to be forgiven, but no one else does”. Humility is needed for both repentance and forgiveness, which is perhaps why humility is so often called for. It may also be why repentance and forgiveness are so difficult for us. Again, Paul points us toward Jesus who leads the way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (2 Philippians 2:5-8) Notice here that humility is not a mask for self-loathing or self-negation. To “empty oneself” is to release self-importance, to literally “not be full of oneself.” Humility must not be mistaken for self-abnegation – it is rather the fullest affirmation of our true identity as God’s beloved children.

Micah 6:8 tells us that what God desires of us is that we do justice [together with God], embrace mercy [together with God], and walk humbly [together] with God. Justice and Mercy are the two hands of humility with which we practice God’s love in the world. Any notion of Justice that lacks Mercy is false, just as is any notion of Mercy that lacks some expression of Justice. Forgiveness is not contrary to God’s justice – it is the very nature of God’s justice.

We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love without passing through our own valley of repentance – which feels for many like a shadow of death. God’s whole creation calls out to us proclaiming God’s glory and our beauty, begging for us to let ourselves be loved, and to love all around us. Repentance is a vital step in that process. Without it we can’t be ready for the things to come – cannot be ready for the blessings that God has for us or the ways that God desires to work in and through us. God has dreams for us, but until we repent, we won’t be able to dream them, much less live them.

Update on my school plans

Many of you are aware that I have decided to go back to school, pursuing a doctoral degree at SMU beginning this year.
SMU and I have decided that I will NOT be pursuing a PhD in Theology any time soon. Instead, I am excited to report that I will begin the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree with classes in June, 2012. The DMin is a school program pursued part time, designed for people serving in full time ministry.
The DMin is designed to deepen and strengthen skills for ministry in the local congregation and beyond. It is a “practical” as opposed to a “theoretical” degree – i.e. the focus and goal is the increase of effectiveness in ministry – either strengthening existing ministries, exploring and beginning new ones, or some combination. It is rooted and grounded in the student’s lived ministry experience in a local context – for me it will be my lived ministry experience at Forest Grove and in the Lucas/Allen/Fairview area.
This decision now brings clarity to how I will be spending my time, which I anticipate may help Forest Grove move toward clarity on our shared discovery of God’s dream for us. May God continue to work in and through us, bringing us together toward maturity in Christ.
Thanks again for all your continued support.

Making Preparations for Christmas

The tree is up, and the lights are finally on the outside of the house. Housekeeper has come! Menu is being prepared for Christmas Dinner. Shopping is almost done. Christmas cards are, well, in process let’s say. Travel plans are coming together – whose going where when.
This is what it means to make preparations for Christmas. Or is it? Certainly Mary and Joseph would have been doing similar things in the days leading up to the birth. They would have been making their living quarters (a lean-to shed or cave most likely) as comfortable as possible in preparation for their baby. They would have made a list of who needed to be contacted after the baby was born, and how they’d get word back. They probably wanted to go to the market to buy something for the baby, but that was an extravagance they couldn’t afford.
More importantly though, I imagine that they both were, as the scriptures say, “pondering these things in their hearts.”
15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2)
Remember, Mary and Joseph had already been visited by angels themselves. They’d rehearsed all the Messianic prophecies, they’d journeyed past Shechem and Jerusalem and other sites of religious and historical import. Their experience was pregnant with meaning. So no doubt they’d been “treasuring all these things and pondering them in their hearts” for some time.
And this is what, I suggest, it means for us to prepare for Christmas. Return to the stories – both the Gospel accounts in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, as well as the Messianic texts like Isaiah 9 & 11 and Micah 5. Read them, treasure them, ponder them in your heart. Give God the luxurious, extravagant gift of your time, time to be quiet, still, and listen to what the Holy Spirit might want to speak in you, to you, through you this Christmas.