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In numerous worship assemblies this Sunday morning there will be a sincere, well-meaning soul who says something to the effect of:

“Let’s completely focus our minds on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins and remove all other worldly concerns from our hearts as we share in the bread and the wine.”

“Whatever else might be going on in our lives right now with our families, our work, our finances, or our health, let’s put these things out of our minds for the next few moments as we completely center our thoughts on the cross in remembrance of Jesus.”

For most of my life, I have heard statements similar to these shared in communion thoughts before the Lord’s Supper or expressed more indirectly in the prayers that are offered prior to sharing in the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine.

Despite the sincerity and noble intentions of such admonitions for us to empty our minds of “worldly concerns” during this memorial feast, I would like to suggest that: 1) it isn’t possible, and 2) it isn’t necessary or advisable.

As to the possibility of self-induced, temporary amnesia, try this… don’t think about a banana… or your favorite sports team… or the name of your first pet.  How well did you do?  By merely mentioning “whatever else is going on in our lives right now,” our thoughts instantly lock on to our most pressing concern, the heaviest burden on our heart, our deepest pain, or the most recent source of our anxiety or guilt.  “So, now that you’ve identified it, stop thinking about it!”  Can we just instantly change channels like that?  I don’t think so.  But, here’s the cool thing: I don’t think we have to.

Let me clarify something, lest some readers misunderstand.

I completely agree that, in the solemnity and celebration of remembering the Christ who died for us, we dare not profane the feast and dishonor the Lamb by mere mechanical participation in the Lord’s Supper.  How tragic for us and how insulting to the Lord if our thoughts and sentiments are focused on self-absorbed trivialities like making grocery lists, checking Facebook, or adjusting the roster of our fantasy football team.  Regardless of your understanding of “unworthy manner” (“irreverently,” The Message) and “discerning the body of Christ,” surely this kind of trivialization of the bread and the cup (and the Savior’s body and blood which they represent) risks the guilt and judgment referenced in I Corinthians 11:26-29.

However, to suggest that our relationships, vocations, finances, and physical health are merely “secular” concerns which have “no place at the table” reinforces the erroneous notion of a compartmentalized faith in which our worship to God and our communion with Christ have nothing to do with “real life.”  On the contrary, there is no facet or aspect of my life that is to be exempt from His lordship.  “All He wants is all of me!”

So, bring your troubled marriage to the table as you remember the One who convicts and challenges us to sacrificially offer agape love to one another as husbands and wives, just as He did in laying down His life for His bride, the church.  Since God has declared the crucified and resurrected Jesus to be both Lord and Christ, let’s submit to His teaching and recommit ourselves to the hard work of “becoming one” and resolve to let nothing or no one separate what God has joined together.

How would the Christ who died for me want me to resolve a conflict at work?  How would He have me respond to a co-worker who has acted and spoken unreasonably and hurtfully against me.  Instead of engaging in a “mental block” about my relationships, wouldn’t the Teacher prefer, even during the Supper, that I “leave my offering before the altar,” walk across the assembly area, and be reconciled with an estranged brother or sister before I proceed any further with my worship?

In times of financial hardship and uncertain employment, I can be greatly encouraged by remembering that the Savior who bore my sins on the cross also taught me to trust in a heavenly Father who knows my needs and will provide for me just as He does the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  He will never leave me or forsake me.

The Great Redeemer is also the Great Physician who not only cares for our souls, but acted so compassionately and mercifully toward those in physical need and pain.  Because of what He suffered, we have in Him a sympathetic, understanding High Priest through whom we can confidently approach the Father’s throne to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

What better time is there for me to confess my sins through my Advocate, my atoning Sacrifice, my Passover, Jesus Christ the righteous, so that His blood, symbolized by the cup that I drink, will continue to cleanse me from all unrighteousness?  His sacrificial body and blood are the reason, the only reason, that I can live free and forgiven.

In all of this, primacy is still given to “proclaiming His death” through eating the bread and drinking the cup in remembrance of Him.  However, it is not merely a cognitive acknowledgment of a relationally remote death that is locked up in the annals of ancient history.  Rather, it is a memorial feast in which we praise, proclaim, and adore the Lamb of God, the Living Christ, the Conqueror of death, and the Hope of our own resurrection until the glorious day of His promised return.

Rather than seeking to temporarily ignore our burdens, doubts, struggles, and failings, let’s bring them with us to the foot of the cross.   As we remember the sacrificial body and blood of the Lord who saves us from sin, let us also lay claim to His power to redeem and restore whatever is burdening our hearts.

Let’s lay it all on the table!

A few days ago, I arrived for an appointment about 30 minutes early (I seriously overestimated the drive time on my inaugural visit), and I decided to use the lag time to browse around a nearby Books-a-Million.

As I typically do in large book retailers, I headed to the Religion Section so that I could be subjected to yet another self-inflicted dose of guilt and despair over how many books I haven’t read.  I live with a constant sense of “being behind” in my reading, and periodic visits to bookstores serve to insert a new exponent into the mathematical equation that expresses my utter hopelessness of ever catching up.  Christian publishers continue to churn out new volumes at a relentless pace, ensuring that I fade farther into the distance in their rear-view mirror.

This particular “walk of shame” through the imposing and intimidating aisles, however, struck me with an even more overwhelming sense of “what’s out there” in Christian publishing.  One entire side of an aisle was dedicated to the subject of Christian Living.  Mind you, this wasn’t Mardel or a Family Christian retail outlet, where I assume the titles are even more numerous.  This was a “secular” bookstore.  Across the aisle was the expansive General Religion section, which included such intriguing titles as The Dictionary of Demons: Names of the Damned, Hinduism for Dummies, and Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

But, the Christian Living collection?  Wow!  There were 5 shelves on each of the 7 mini-sections, for a total of 35 shelves.  A quick count on a couple of them led me to estimate that each shelf contained an average of 40 different titles.  Grand total (yes, I had to use the calculator on my phone): 1,400 books, each of which was authored with the intent of explaining some vital aspect of this thing called “the Christian life.”  Taking into account the embarrassingly low words-per-minute that I read, I would have to devote most of the rest of my life to “Christian reading” just to make it through those books.  There would be precious little time remaining for actual “Christian living.”  And this just represents current best-sellers, other recent publications, and those that have achieved the status of classic Christian literature.  Inventory and shelf space will have to be cleared for next year’s inevitably abundant crop of new books.

I’m extremely grateful for Christian authors, both ancient and contemporary, who write from a position of sincere faith in Jesus Christ and respect for the authority of the Word of God.  It’s a blessing that they share their study, research, knowledge, experience, humor, and gift of communication in order to broaden and deepen our understanding of Scripture and provide insights into how we can be transformed into more devoted disciples, ministers, leaders, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, servants, citizens, and spiritual brothers and sisters.  We are much the better for it!

However, it’s good to be periodically reminded that Christian literature, while certainly able to enrich and enhance our life in Christ, is not essential to having a real, relevant, challenging, and meaningful relationship with Jesus.

So, you haven’t digested the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers?  You’ve never read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion?  Have you somehow managed to avoid Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton?  You’ve never read a single book authored by C.S. Lewis?  You’ve only read a handful of the hundreds of books authored by contemporary masters of devotion?  Do the latest issues of Christianity Today and Leadership Journal lie unopened on a side table in your study?  Do you rarely, if ever, read periodicals and teaching magazines from within your own brotherhood and fellowship of believers?

It’s okay!  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  The fact that you haven’t (or you don’t) shouldn’t cause you to feel like a second-class Christian.  And if you have or you do, please drop your air of spiritual superiority right here and right now.

Scripture is fully capable of leading us to faith in Jesus Christ and into a maturing, saving relationship with Him.  A more-than-sufficient challenge for Christian living is provided by the simple, yet daunting, commands to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  The call to love my wife as Christ loves His church and to guide my children in the Lord’s discipline and instruction is enough to keep me from ever becoming complacent or haughty.  Ditto, the instruction to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.  I recently shared a message on Colossians 3:12-17, and I stated that if the New Testament canon only consisted of the Gospels and these six verses of admonition, I would have plenty to keep me convicted and diligently occupied for the rest of my time on earth.

I was momentarily overwhelmed by the 1,400 reasons why I wasn’t sufficiently “making the grade” in my efforts to follow in the steps of Jesus.  However, I took comfort once again that, though tempted to be distracted, worried, and bothered about so many things, “only one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:38-42) and the essentials are so relatively few.

A couple of months ago I was asked to address the question, “What do you say to someone whose child died from cancer and they want to blame God?  Their sadness and their anger with God just seem to rule their life!” While I attempted to provide some counsel and direction regarding the immeasurable pain of this particular loss, the same principles would similarly apply to the entire sad spectrum of tragedies, hardships, and griefs that afflict human hearts.

Long before we concern ourselves with “what to say” to grief-stricken souls who are wrestling with anger toward God, we first need to focus on “what to do” for such a person, i.e., how we should respond to them, treat them, and minister to them.  Our “presence” and our actions of kindness and compassion should always precede our words, and completely substitute for them if necessary.  Show compassion, extend kindness, demonstrate humility, deal with them gently, and be patient with them (Colossians 3:12).

The emotions of those who have suffered soul-jarring and faith-shaking losses are very real and extremely raw.  What they feel is what they feel.  Their pain is deep.  Their grief is intense.  To attempt to get them to deny their emotions, to suppress their feelings, or to feel guilty about their anger will be completely unhelpful and counterproductive and will almost certainly ensure that you will not be welcomed to walk beside them throughout their long journey of grief.

While I will conclude with a few suggestions as to what words might be offered to accompany our deeds of compassion, let me first identify a few specific things not to say.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

No it doesn’t.  Not even close.  This is one of those statements that is almost in the Bible.  Though it may sound like an affirmation of unqualified faith in a sovereign God, in actuality it slanderously accuses God of cruelty and injustice and impugns His divine will.  Romans 8:28 is frequently used as a proof text for this unbiblical notion, but that passage doesn’t teach that all earthly outcomes are somehow the result of a micro-managing, manipulative Deity.  Read the passage carefully.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a quotation from Marilyn Monroe, not the Messiah.  Since I have written about this statement previously, I won’t further belabor the point here.  See “Everything Happens for a Reason, Right?” for a lengthier discussion and explanation.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Again, close, but no canon!  Almost in the Bible, but not!  What about I Corinthians 10:13?  What about it?  The specific subject of that verse is temptation (enticement to do evil), and it affirms that God will always provide a way of escape for us; that is, no spiritual lose-lose scenarios where our only recourse is to sin; there will be a way out of temptation, if we choose to take it.  But, that is theological light years away from saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” in regard to anything and everything in this life.  Such a statement suggests that God’s divine hand is on a celestial spigot of suffering, determining and divvying out tragedies and heartaches based on His assessment of our ability to “handle it.”  It is not only wrong and hurtful, but insulting, to suggest to someone that their immense suffering is somehow a divine “compliment.”

“God is in control.”

Ultimately, yes; God reigns supreme and unrivaled over the whole of His creation.  But a cosmic control freak who expressly and explicitly manipulates and maneuvers the actions and outcomes in the lives of 7.1 billion people?  No, no, a thousand times, no!!!  Offered as a response to a tragic loss, “God is in control,” comes across as yet another hollow platitude, and, worse, one that wrongfully lays the blame for our suffering squarely at the foot of God’s throne of grace.

“God has a plan.”          

Yes, He indeed does, but the death of their child was not a part of it.

“One day you’ll understand why; one day you’ll know the reason.”

No, they won’t.

If this is a person who you know and love, tell them how much they mean to you and how much your heart aches with them and for them.  Tell them how much you loved their child, and how much you miss them.  Tell them, “I can’t imagine the pain, the hurt, the sense of loss, and the anger that you are feeling.”  Unless, of course, you can!  But, even if you haven’t walked that particular road of pain yourself, you can connect them with others who have, who can help minister to them and who know precisely what they are experiencing.

Grief is a journey and a process, not an event.  Patiently love them and consistently demonstrate the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  When the time is right, assure them that God loves them, too.  Remind them that they can speak openly and honestly to God about what they are feeling.

Hopefully, in time, they will come to see how God can bring light even out of the darkest of nights, and out of our brokenness He can bring blessing.  He is not the Cause, but rather the Redeemer of our suffering.

Ultimately, however, it is not our job to convince them of these things; that will be their choice.  Our responsibility is to simply love them and minister to them.

As I was mowing my backyard in the late afternoon one day last week, I was startled by movement that I detected out of my peripheral vision to the right.  I kept pushing the mower and turned my head fully in that direction, but no longer saw anything.  On the return trip across the yard, I noticed the same thing at exactly the same spot, but this time to my left.   I stopped, backed up a few steps, and discovered that a faint shadow of my body appeared if I stood within the confines of a very small space.

You may be thinking, “Tim, are you saying that you were unaware of the phenomenon of shadows?  They’ve been around for quite a while, you know!”  No, smarty pants, I’m quite familiar with shadows; just not those that are cast toward the west in the late afternoon.  That’s right!  My shadow was being cast toward the setting sun!

A brief investigation of my surroundings revealed that, although a dark, distinct shadow of my body was being cast toward the east by the afternoon sun, a lighter, lesser shadow was being cast toward the west by the sun’s reflection in an upstairs window on the back of the house.  Mystery solved!

The dueling shadows (one greater, one lesser) were created by two lights (one greater, one lesser).  In actuality, the sun was the only true source of light; the cause of my westward-leaning shadow was a mere reflection of the sun.

In the same way, Jesus is the only true light of the world (John 1:4-9; 8:12; 9:5).  He is the only One who has the power to deliver us from spiritual darkness.  Yet, as His disciples, we are called to reflect His divine light.  In that sense, Jesus could say that we are the light of the world and are to let our light shine in such a way that people are drawn to glorify our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:14-16).

Even though John the Baptist was not “the Light” (John 1:6-8), he was still “a light” through his testimony about Jesus.   Jesus said of John, “He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light,” (John 5:35).

Are we reflecting enough of the Light of the World to make a difference?  Are we walking as children of light (Ephesians 4:8-15) in a way that will catch someone’s attention and direct their curiosity toward the Son?

Are we casting any shadows?

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October 2013