Why God? Brief thoughts on the Church Shooting in Texas, Pain, and Suffering

by Jordan McKenzie

As most readers have probably heard by now, the church shooting that occurred yesterday in Sutherland Springs, Texas (just outside of San Antonio) has become the deadliest church shooting in American history. All told, twenty-six people were killed and nearly two dozen more injured. Nearly half of those killed were children, some as young as five years old. They were gunned down as they worshiped inside their church sanctuary, as they did every Sunday morning.

When we hear about events like this, or the shooting in Las Vegas —where hundreds were injured or killed while simply enjoying a concert— we ask why. WHY? Why God? Why would you let this happen?

This is a natural response. All of us ask ourselves this question at some point when we’re witnessing a difficult situation or going through such a situation ourselves. In fact, people have been asking the why question for thousands of years, even back to the time the Old Testament was written. Indeed, entire books, like Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job, were written in part to address the question of why there is pain and suffering in our world.*****

Yet what we find out in reading these books is that there is no clear answer to this difficult question. Sometimes it seems that God uses difficult events to increase our faith. Sometimes it seems God uses them to bring glory to himself. And sometimes it seems they are the result of humanity’s God-given free will. (Methodists would generally tend to support the view that pain and suffering are primarily a result of human sin.)  The challenge is that each of these answers raises additional questions. No one answer provides us an easy, hard-and-fast solution to the problem. Thus the question of why is not an easy one to answer. But there are two things that can help us when we think about this question.

The first thing is this. It’s helpful to always remember that the ways in which God is working in our world are far beyond our understanding. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “his ways our higher than our ways, his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” This a central point to remember. We are not God. We cannot even begin to grasp how God is intervening in our daily lives or the lives of others. It is, quite literally, beyond our understanding. So when we ask why we always must have some humility, knowing that we may not be able to totally understand what God is up to.

The second thing that is helpful to remember is this. God is always willing and working for our good. Romans 8:28 says as much, saying that “in all things God is working for our good.” You can’t say it any more simply than that. This again is central to remember. We may not know why God is working the way He is, but we can have faith that no matter the situation, God is working for us out of love and concern. No matter what happens, God’s love for us remains even in the chaos of these events. He will not give up on us.

So, as you watch coverage of the tragedy in Texas and hear of other tragedies, it’s natural to ask why. We could discuss that question all day (and all night!) and not agree on an answer. But no matter what, remember that God works in ways we can’t begin to understand. And even though we can’t understand, we can know that he is working for our good. Let that give you peace today. Amen.

*****Discussion of this question is not limited to Christians. Those in other religious traditions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, all actively discuss the issue of why there is pain and suffering in our world. Thus this is a universal, cross-cultural question.

 

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Building a Stronger Foundation

By Jordan McKenzie

As I write this blog, our church revitalization project is well underway. Furniture has been moved, other items have been packed up, and almost all of our pews have been taken out. We are now nearly ready for our asbestos mitigation that is set to begin next week in the sanctuary and surrounding areas of the church.

Due to all the work being done, last Sunday we had our worship service in the social hall. We will continue to worship in the social hall for the next four Sundays (join us each Sunday at 10:15!), until we move back into our refurbished sanctuary on November 19th for a special celebration service.

As we worshiped in the social hall this past Sunday, it just so happened that our worship was centered on the theme of intentional faith development. Given that theme, I couldn’t help but think about the parallel with our building project.

Our building project has been in the planning stages for quite some time. We have a truly wonderful building. It is not only large, but also beautiful. But like any building, after some time, it needs some TLC. So with the project we hope to make our church building safer, more inviting, and better-suited to meet the changing needs of community. In other words, we want to, quite literally, build a stronger foundation for our church.

In the same way, intentional faith development is also about building a stronger foundation. Like an old building, we have all taken on wear and tear from the daily struggles of life. Through our sins and the sins of others, we’ve all been hurt, frustrated, and damaged. We’re all broken and in need of some repairs.

Who can repair us and make us new? It is only God himself. Through Jesus, God makes us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). God is the potter, we are the clay (Isaiah 64: 8). And as we are made new, we become people who are more loving, forgiving, self-sacrificing, and humble. We likewise become people who are more just and generous with others. Like the work of renovating our church building, this work of God is a long process. Indeed, it is a lifelong process. Just as we may work on one area of the church, then another, and then another, improving each of them, we do the same with our lives, looking at many different areas which need to be improved. It may start with our attitude, our pride, how we treat others, or something else. But it is all the work of God through Christ. Through Christ, God is building something new in us and through us. Indeed, God is make us new.

So, as we continue in this church revitalization project, I invite you to think about how God may want to rebuild and repair you, one area of your life at a time. What areas has God already changed and made new? What areas does God still need to work on? Those are good questions to start with, because that’s what intentional faith development is about. It’s about intentionally growing to become all that we were created to be. May God grant each of us strength and perseverance each day as God makes us new. And may we become like a beautiful, brand-new building, restored on the inside and out.

Welcoming Others

By Rev. Randy Coleman

Come again, Paul, what did you just write?  Did you really mean that if we welcome one another and do it like Christ did, then we are glorifying God in that way?  I imagine the original Christians at Rome probably were flabbergasted or at least scratching their heads at the reading of this verse.  Paul summarizes the first six verses of this chapter where he noted that Christians must put others first.  Going even further back to 13:8, he reminded his readers of the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And the only way that is possible is to receive God’s love first and then love him in return with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:29-31).

Yes, Paul is comparing the way we treat others with our relationship with God, just as Jesus did.  Love for others and love for God go hand in hand.  If we are to love God with our whole being, then we are also to love others, and welcoming them is part of that love for others.  On Sunday mornings or throughout the week, anytime you greet or welcome a brother or sister in Christ, you are loving and glorifying God.  So, the welcome goes much beyond a simple, fleeting, handshake or a warm hug.  It is a major part of our relationship with God himself.  We’ve already begun worshiping even before the first hymn is sung, and we’ve continued worshiping even beyond the last stanza of the last song.  Welcoming others is truly welcoming God.

And this welcoming of others goes beyond greeting brothers and sisters.  To the Roman Christians, Paul very clearly included all nations, meaning all people groups.  He specifically states that they were to welcome the Gentiles as well as their fellow Jews.  They were to welcome the Gentiles so that they “might glorify God for his mercy” (v. 9).  Wow, now I can imagine the Jewish Christians at Rome scratching their heads even more.  “What,” Paul, they say, “You want us to even include those smelly, unclean, uncircumcised people?  We really don’t want anything to do with them.  Is this what we have to do in order to glorify God?”  And Paul would respond with a resounding, “Yes!”

That’s why he goes on to include four more OT passages to verify the truth that God accepts all people and wants them to do the same.  Even the “Gentiles will place their hope in him” (v. 12).  Thus, God is also expecting us today to include all people in our welcome, which includes all foreigners, immigrants, widows, orphans, outcast, and all ethnic groups.  It includes those who are hard to love – those who don’t return our love or repay our kindness with ridicule.  When we do love them with no strings attached, then we are truly glorifying God.  So, are you ready to welcome all others and glorify God? I pray that your answer, and our church’s answer, is yes!

 

More Than Money

by Jordan McKenzie

Matthew 19:21: Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have. Give the money to those who are poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

Really? Go and sell EVERYTHING you have and follow me? That’s what Jesus requires of us? Everything? That seems a little demanding!

For much of my life, that was my reaction to this verse. I got the basic point of the passage. Or so I thought. The point was that wealth holds us back because our focus should be on Jesus. So we need to make sure we’re putting Jesus first ahead of our money. That made sense, but the business about selling everything you had seemed a little bit extreme.

Several years ago when studying this passage I had a sort of epiphany about it. I realized that this story was about one man. His obstacle was his wealth. That’s clear. That was what kept him from following Jesus. But how could I apply this verse when wealth wasn’t an issue for me? How could apply it if I were poor and lacked material riches? Perhaps I could just skip over this verse?

Then I realized that this story might be about more than just money and what we do with our possessions. Maybe it’s making a deeper point that we all have things that keep us from following Jesus fully. The question that comes to my mind now is what Jesus would say to me if I asked the same question as the rich young ruler. What are the things that are keeping me from totally following Jesus?

I can ask you the same question. What are the things keeping you from totally following Jesus? Your comfort? Your pride? Your wealth? Your bitterness about your past? Your feelings of insecurity? Your partisan politics?

So, what’s holding you back?

Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for the example of Jesus. Help me to follow him in all aspects and areas of my life. Take away anything that keeps me from following him. Amen.

What Got Jesus into Trouble?

by Rev. Dr. Randy Coleman

Luke 4:14-30

 “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in his home town” (v. 24).  As I was reading this story the other day and came across these well-known words of Jesus in Luke chapter four, I found something that I had never seen before and so I share it with you now.  The story begins with the good news about Jesus spreading rapidly throughout the whole countryside.  He taught in their synagogues and received praise from everyone (v. 14, 15).  Jesus then returns to Nazareth “where he had been raised” (v. 16).  This detail is an important aspect of the story, as we will see later.

On the Sabbath, Jesus goes to the synagogue and stands up to read from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18, 19).

When finished reading, Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and says to the people: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (v. 21).  In one brief sentence, Jesus claims to be the long-awaited Messiah.  He is the one that Isaiah was speaking of.  This could be like a young man standing up in his graduation ceremony, declaring to be the next NBA star.  Even if he was a dedicated athlete, people still might question his daring proclamation.

Do the people believe Jesus?  The people do begin to speak highly of him, or so it seems.  They rave about his gracious words and then ask, “Is this Joseph’s son” (v. 22)?  Now they have lowered him back down to human status.  “We know where you are from, Jesus,” they are saying.  Thus, the implication is that he cannot really be the Messiah.  The home town folk at the graduation ceremony smirk somewhat because the young man foolishly claims to be the next NBA star.  “We’ll see,” they respond.

Jesus, fully discerning their intent, tells them how they will respond.  One day they will say to him, “Doctor, heal yourself.  Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.”  Then he goes on to make that statement about a prophet not being welcome in his hometown (v. 23, 24).  To illustrate this, Jesus relates two stories from Israelite history about prophets who were not accepted in their home towns.  In the first story, the prophet Elijah was unable to help the widows in Israel during the three-and-a-half-year drought.  He was sent to none of them, but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  The second story concerns the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor.  In his time, there were many persons with skin diseases in Israel, but none of them were cleansed, only Naaman, the Syrian.

At this point, notice how quickly the people turn from raving about Jesus (v. 22) to attacking him (v. 28).  In a short time, the crowds’ gracious words turn to anger.  They stand up in condemnation of him and run him out of town.  They lead him to the crest of a hill and attempt to throw him off.  But Jesus passes through the crowd unhurt and moves on his way.  Make no doubt about it, they want to kill Jesus!  Wow, what a reaction!  Why did the people become so angry?  Why did they so quickly turn against their home town hero?  Was it something like Lebron James declaring his move from Cleveland to Miami?  In some ways, perhaps.

Part of the reason for their arousal to anger was simply unbelief in their hometown hero. Jesus clearly indicates this when he says that a prophet is not accepted in his home town.  And his two stories illustrate that.  But does this account for their extreme anger?  Is this why they want to put him to death?  I don’t think so.  Apathy or even unbelief do not normally get people killed.

Here is what I saw for the first time in this story.  The protagonists of Jesus’ stories are foreigners, living in foreign cities. The widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon lived north of Israel along the Mediterranean coast.  Sidon and Tyre were two prosperous Phoenician or Canaanite cities often referred to as cities receiving God’s judgment (Jer. 25:22; 27:3).  The Israelites would not have looked favorably on anyone from this area.  In the second story Naaman was a Syrian, and a foreign leader at that.  Both stories show care for foreigners, but no help for Israelites.  Jesus himself has done miracles in other places, but not here in Nazareth.  The Messiah was supposed to come and care for Israel and lead them out of the oppressive rule of Rome.  But this “would-be” home town hero is talking about helping foreigners and not Israelites.  Now we may have a case of leaving Cleveland and going to Miami on our hands.  Or better yet, it’s more like the hometown hero helping the Russians or caring for undocumented, illegal aliens in our country.  The big underlying problem that gets Jesus in trouble is called nationalism.  It’s good to be patriotic, but not nationalistic, where everything is first and foremost about us and our country; where we are superior to all others.

We certainly see this problem in our country today.  Donald Trump was elected on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  The Israelites in Jesus’ day were living by and expecting their Messiah to “Make Israel Great Again.” The people are ready to push Jesus off the cliff because he claimed to be their Messiah, their national hero.  But this man, Joseph’s son, is a far cry from a national hero.  How dare he claim to be their Messiah and not help them become great again!  How dare he talk about helping foreigners out and not help his own people!

That’s why they almost killed him.  That’s why another mob did have him killed on another day at the end of his life.  Jesus had claimed to be the King of the Jews, but had refused to help them politically.  That is the ugly head of nationalism.

So pray with me today, “Oh, Lord, please purge our country and our churches from the sin of nationalism.  Please cleanse me. Amen.”

Finding Faith (In the Midst of Fear)

by Jordan McKenzie

Fear.

It’s one thing we all have.

Though we may not want to admit it, we all fear something. It may be the simple fears of daily life, like the fear of what others think of us or the fear of having to talk in front of other people. It could be deeper fears, like the fear of not being able to make ends meet or not knowing what might happen to a loved one who is walking down the wrong path. Or it may be existential fears, like the fear of death or cancer. Regardless, the truth is that at one time or another, we all have things we fear. We all have these things mulling around in our heads from time to time, keeping us up at night or making us anxious.

I believe as Christians we must acknowledge our fears. The Bible is filled with people who are honest about their fears. People who don’t just celebrate the good things in life, but wrestle with the full range of human emotions. This especially comes out in books such as Job, Psalms, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. These writers didn’t have perfect lives. They weren’t so holy that their fears suddenly went away. They struggled with many of the same issues we do. And like them, we can’t simply gloss over our fears or pretend they don’t exist.

We are reminded that even Jesus had fears. In Luke 22, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was filled with fear. It ran chalk through the fiber of his being, even to the point of causing him to sweat blood. Yet in that moment, he shows us what the appropriate response to fear is for as Christians. He prayed passionately, pouring out his fears before God. He let God know the full weight of his fears and how they broke his spirit. He then gave them over to God, putting himself in God’s hands.

We, too, must follow Jesus’s example. We must sometimes be broken before God about our deepest fears and doubts. But then we must give them over to God. It’s only then that we can learn to trust God and be freed from our fears.

This, indeed, is a daily practice. It’s not as though one day we will magically be filled with total confidence and live life without fear. But every day, as we go through our lives and share our fears with God and learn to let Him have control little by little, we will learn to trust God. And we will learn to be people who can live more peaceful, calmer, lives.

Prayer: God, we are often a fearful people. We know that you are the Great Counselor. You are the Solid Rock. Help us to be honest about our fears and trust you enough to help us with them. Help us to know that you are there for us and with us always. Amen.

A Vacation Bible School Reflection

By Jordan McKenzie

This week is VBS week here at Belmont United Methodist Church. Each evening there will be nearly 50 children in our church who will sing, dance, play games, hear Bible stories, and eat snacks. 50 children. 50 LIVES THAT WE CAN IMPACT.

What an amazing opportunity.

These 50 children are growing up in a very confusing world. They face a world torn apart by broken homes, by the heroin epidemic, by violence, by online bullying. It’s a world which often seems increasingly divided and dysfunctional. In many ways, it’s a world that can be scary for a kid.

Sadly, many will be tempted to give into the world’s cynicism and brokenness. That’s because they don’t know that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves them. And they don’t know that even when they face their darkest moments, God can forgive them.

That is, unless someone tells them.

Again I say, what an amazing opportunity.

So, I hope you’ll be in prayer for both myself and all of the other wonderful volunteers helping with VBS this week, that God will help us to make a difference in the lives of these children not only for one week week but for a lifetime and even an eternity.

Even more, I hope that you’ll remember that every day you have the chance to also make a difference in the lives of people all around you. Every day, you have the chance to show God’s love through a simple smile, a word of encouragement, a prayer. There may be people around you who need that this very day.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll change a life today too.

This week, may God grant us all the strength to be the people He’s called us to be.