Category Archives: Family

A Memorial Message For a Child

I recently spoke at the memorial service for a young man who was murdered. I did not know the man and only recently had come to know his mother, who asked me to speak. Undertaking the pastoral role of peaking at any memorial service, where family and friends are understandably upset, if enough of a challenge. However, when the deceased person is a child and was a victim of a violent crime, there challenge seems even greater. My role is never to judge but to comfort. How does a pastor do that and speak not only to the hope God extends in Jesus Christ but also to the desire for justice?

I have included the manuscript of the message I shared at the memorial service. However, I have changed the names of all people and locations as well as the dates in order to protect the privacy of the actual family. I am sharing this manuscript for whatever help it offer to others, especially those called to serve in similar circumstances.


Image result for in loving memory

John Smith, Jr., passed away on January 8, 2018 in Massachusetts. John was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 10, 1987 to his mother, Juanita Bowen, and father, John Smith, Sr. John is survived by his mother, Juanita, and his step-father, Michael Bowen, his sisters, Janice Rice and Tina Smith, his brother Alex Smith, and his auntie, Debora Stone. He was proceeded in death by his father, John Smith, Sr.

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” – John 11:38-44, CEB

Several days ago I sat down with John’s mother Juanita and asked her to tell me about her son. She described her son John as someone who loved to have a good time, teasing and laughing. And like any good son, that also meant teasing and laughing with his mother. But Juanita also noted how she could always count on John to help her with the little, the often thankless jobs like carrying in the groceries or just pausing to open the door for another person. I don’t know about you but where I’m from that’s what we call a “gentleman.” 

More importantly though, Juanita recalled how her son John was always “very loving and very hugging.” That sounds like a wonderful son to have.

But that’s also part of why the passing of John is so difficult, especially for his mother and his step-father. As parents, we never expect to bury our children. They’re supposed to bury us. And so no matter the age, when a child passes away there is a grief and pain that words cannot fully describe. 

Of course, this child, John is more than just a son. He’s also a brother, a nephew, and a friend to others. And to lose a brother, nephew, and friend at the young age of just thirty-two is a difficult burden to bear. 

I am also aware that John’s death was not because of an accident or illness but because someone else took his life from him in a criminal act. And so, we’re here today because a terrible injustice has occurred, an injustice committed not just against John but also against his mother and step-father… and against his brothers and sisters as well as his auntie… and even against his friends.

But I am here speaking today as one who believes in Jesus Christ. My conviction that Jesus is the Lord and Savior also means I have some convictions about the way the world works and the path of history the world will follow. What I’m getting at has to do with redemption and the need for justice and mercy along the way. 

A few minutes ago we heard a passage of scripture that recounted the time when Jesus raised a young man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been sick and by the time Jesus showed up, he had died from his illness. So Jesus raised him as a sign that God is at work in our world, redeeming life and will in fact bring an end to the curse of death we all face. 

So Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” (Jn 11:40). It’s a question and it invites us to ask if we do believe. Because if we do believe then we have hope for redemption from all the grief and pain in life, including death. And if we do believe then we are right to also want justice just as God desires justice. So we do desire for the government, whom God has ordained as a lawful authority, to hold accountable those responsible for taking John’s life.

But if we believe in Jesus, we also must be people who show mercy. I’m not sure what that always looks like and it seems rather difficult to think about showing mercy to people who have acted unjustly towards us. But I also know that evil wins when our righteous anger and protest of injustice becomes hatred and vengeance. God wins when we remain steadfast in love, extending mercy just as God has shown us mercy.

All of this doesn’t make the death of John or anyone else, for that matter, any easier. To Juanita and Michael as well as to the rest of John’s family and friends, I am truly sorry that John has passed away. As a parent myself who has had a son pass away, I know that there isn’t any “getting over” such a loss. The grief and pain of losing someone you love is a terrible thing. 

What we have is hope… hope which springs from our belief in Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the passage of scripture we read earlier, when Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did so. And one day the proclamation that God has made in his Son, Jesus Christ, and particularly through his death and resurrection, means that the grave of death is not eternal. Instead we are offered the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ, our Lord and that is our hope.

Back East: A New Ministry With The Newark Church of Christ

We’re on the move. That is, this coming spring my family and I will be moving back east to Newark, Delaware where I will begin serving as the senior minster with the Newark Church of Christ. Those of you who follow me on other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter likely already know about this news but I wanted a chance to say more about this move.

IMG_E2700Since we only moved from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri last July, some people have asked why we are moving back east so quickly. I don’t want to go into a lot of details but we moved to Missouri so I could serve with a church but things didn’t work out as we anticipated and I was let go rather quickly. This had nothing to do with any illegal, immoral, or unethical activity on my part, so it came as quite a shock and with a lot of questions for my wife and I as it pertains to our family as well as the vocation of ministry. In fact, I actually began giving a lot of consideration to leaving the vocation of Christian ministry as a full-time occupation all together (note: not giving up on following Jesus, just serving as a church pastor/minister). However, the Lord had other plans.

While I was still uncertain about my future in the vocation of Christian ministry, my name had been recommended to several churches as a candidate to consider becoming their next minister. Most of these churches were working with Interim Ministry Partners, a ministry partnership I highly recommend if your church is seeking a new minister. One of these churches was the Newark Church of Christ, who contacted me back in early November of 2017. As I began a conversation with the search committee, it became clear that God is at work in some amazing ways among this church.

To begin with, after much discernment, the Newark Church of Christ embraced a new vision form God of being people who invite people to experience Jesus together. This vision was clear in their support of ministries such as Blue Hens For Christ, the campus ministry at the University of Delaware, The People’s House, and the monthly Saturday morning pancake breakfast where guest can also acquire goods necessary for daily living. This was even more clear in church’s decision to transition their traditional Vacation Bible School to a summer outreach week and the begin a second contemporary and instrumental worship service that will attract new people seeking Jesus.

But there’s more… More importantly, as I talked with the search committee and later with elders, the passion for Jesus was palpable. I could hear it their prayers and see it in their faces when they talked about what God was doing in your church. As I spoke with the search committee and elders it was apparent that the Holy Spirit is the one breathing life into this church, filling it with a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Throughout the conversation, the process required much prayer and discernment. Remember, that there was a part of me considering that my time serving in the vocation of Christian ministry was over. So I was simply praying that the Lord would reveal if serving with this church was his will. As the conversation continued and as it became evident of the way God was working among the Newark Church of Christ, the Lord kindled a desire to serve with this church. In fact, I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that my desire to serve with this church increased so my that in my prayers I simply began petition for the Lord to open this door so that my family and I could become a part of the Newark Church of Christ and I could serve with them as a minister of the gospel.

I am beyond excited to announce that I will begin serving as a minister with the Newark Church of Christ later this month. I am also confident that God will continue leading us forth, filling us with the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus who invite people to experience Jesus together.

The Chillicothe Church of Christ

This year will be one of transition for my family and I as I have been invited to serve as the minister with the Chillicothe Church of Christ in Chillicothe, MO. This comes after many prayers regarding our future and with more than a few conversations with different churches. Ultimately my prayer became one of submission to God, that whatever door he should open is the door we would walk through. Fortunately for us, we believe the Chillicothe Church of Christ will be a great fit with our family as well as a great fit for who God has shaped me to be as a minister of the gospel. We are joining a church in which God has been at work and in which we anticipate God continuing to work among for the sake of his kingdom and glory.

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As the picture taken from the church’s website says, I look forward to helping this church in “loving God by loving people” and serving alongside of the other elders and deacons. While we won’t move as a family until next summer, I have already begun working with this church and will do so throughout the year by traveling to Chillicothe frequently over the next eight months. This will allow me to begin doing some of the necessary ethnography with the church and community that allows for a reimagined contextual embodiment of the gospel for the future to come as participants in the mission of God.

Later this month when I am in Chillicothe, I will preach a short message series called Living Gospel. With this series, and looking at the texts of Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 14:15-24, I want to cast some vision about embodying the gospel as a church seeking to faithfully follow Jesus − the fundamental calling of the church − as participants in the mission of God. And yes, this has everything to do with how the church loves God by loving people. Below is the poster picture for this upcoming message series.

In the meantime, I ask that you will pray for my family and I as well as the Chillicothe Church of Christ. Pray that God will give us patience and wisdom throughout this period of transition, just as he has throughout the last year as we were waiting and listening for a new ministry opportunity. Pray also that God will fortify the Chillicothe Church of Christ in love, strengthening us all with his Spirit so that we may grow in faith and unity as followers of Jesus Christ, and that good fruit comes out of this ministry for years to come.

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Hope Remains!

Aunt PatThis past Wednesday my Aunt Pat, who is pictured on the left, took her last breath in this life. Having battled cancer for the last couple years of her life, her suffering finally came to an end. That is another way of saying that although my aunt will be very missed, her death is a relief in some manner as she is no longer having to endure the pain and suffering that usually comes with the final stage of cancer.

I don’t want to be misunderstood about death. Death is a terrible thing. Whether it comes at the end of a very long and beautiful life or it comes prematurely through tragic circumstances such as violence, disease, etc… death is still something that should grieve us. Death has grieved me and still does, from the day when I was twenty-two years old and watched my dad, who had cancer too, take his last breath, to the day when my first son, Kenny, unexpectedly died and a year after that when my younger brother tragically died. Death stings and hurts because once someone we love is gone, they’re gone.

Death also grieves God who created life to flourish rather than perish. So when we turn on the news and hear of people who were violently killed in an Orlando nightclub, or in some school like Sandy Hook Elementary, or at a movie theatre in Auroa, or even in foreign countries like the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi Kenya, God is grieved. It matters not what the victims religious beliefs were or what sort of moral lifestyle they lived, these are people created in the image of God and loved by God.

In this world of death which is also filled with much hatred and violence, it is tempting to become cynical. It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air as though life is hopeless. But I refuse such cynicism because I believe that God has become a human like us in the person of Jesus Christ and that in the coming of Jesus, God is reconciling all things through Jesus who was crucified and raised victoriously from death (Col 2:19-20). I believe there is a day coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new, a day when the new heaven and new earth will be one and death will be no more (Rev 21:1, 4-5).

So even as death seems all around us, hope remains! Until the day when Jesus returns or the day when I take my last breath, which I hope is not any time soon, and I rest in Christ while awaiting his return, I will live with faith(fullness), love, and hope (1 Thess 5:8). Let’s seek peace with each other, loving our neighbors and even our enemies, forgiving others as God forgives us, grieving with those who are grieving, and let the Spirit of God sanctify us that we may live with faith, love, and hope.


Here is a video of the choral group singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul, which I listen too frequently. I first heard this hymn when I was struggling to make sense of life and maintain my faith after the death of my son and younger brother. This hymn speaks gives voice to the grief and pain of suffering as well as the hope that encourages faith.

Dear Kenny… Thirteen Years!

Dear Kenny,

It has been thirteen years since I first laid my eyes upon you. I’ve never forgotten and I never will. The memories are separated further and further by time but the memories never fade and I hope they never will.

Kenneth James Butts July 31, 2002 - August 2, 2002

Kenneth James Butts
July 31, 2002 – August 2, 2002

Yesterday your mom and I, along with your sister Caryn and brother Jared went out and played with some alligators at a park in Florida. We even managed to get your mom to pick up an alligator, which was no small feat. No worries though, it was all safely done with a guide. I imagine you would have had as much fun as your brother and sister. Any ways, this is all part of a vacation that we decided to take this year. But I do so much wish you were here… we all do.

I imagine what you might be doing now or anticipate doing as a thirteen year old boy. I’m sure some of it would cause a bit of worry with your mom and I but I know there would be so much to boast and brag about on you, just as we do with your sister and brother.

As I think about you and think about life, there is more than I could ever write down. I still mourn your passing and I still wonder from time to time about the questions of why you didn’t live and what God was doing when you stopped breathing… why he allowed this to happen. I don’t have any great answers but at this point in life I don’t worry about getting those answers as there are not any easy answers to such questions.

My faith, Kenny, is big enough to live with the disappointment, the grief, and the questions. More importantly, whatever doubts there are, God is big enough to handle them. I don’t have answers to every aspect of faith but I believe in Jesus, I believe that he conquered sin and death by dying on the cross and being raised again from death. That’s what gives me hope or who gives me hope.

And when Jesus comes again…

Thirteen years seems so short and yet it seems so long since I first held you and then held you no more. But one day we will embrace once again. How I long for that day, my son!

With great love,

Your Dad

The Tulsa Workshop… In the Rearview Mirror.

My son and I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Tulsa Workshop last week. This was my first time attending this conference and overall it was a great experience. The theme was “Speak Life,” so here are my thoughts…

  • Traveling with Jared was a great thing to do. As his father, just listening to the different things he comes up with to talk about is priceless. But more importantly, the relationship we are building is so important and priceless too.
  • There’s a Facebook group (which shall remain nameless here) that I belong too that consists of different ministers and church leaders. It was nice getting to meet so many of these men and women, whom I interact with on Facebook, face to face.
  • The speakers and teachers such as John Alan Turner, Rick Atchley, Don McLaughlin, Robert Prater, Terry Rush, Patrick Mead, Josh Graves, Dr. Kent Brantley and Brandon Hatmaker were great but the two that spoke to me…
  • John Alan Turner spoke on failure and the grace of God, mentioning his own failed church plant. He reminded us that “God sees, knows, and wants to heal you from all the hurt and pain… Everything broken gets fixed.” As a minister who just helped close a church, I so needed to hear that word. Thanks John!
  • Dr. Kent Brantley. Really, I need not say anything. His story is compelling but also a great reminded of what following Jesus means. It’s risky and it always calls us to service of others, even at times suffering for the sake of others. Thanks Dr. Brantley for your faithful witness!
  • My son and I were shown first-class hospitality by Robert Prater, his wife Maggie, and their children. Thanks for twisting my arm and forcing me to eat BBQ!
  • Robert preaches for the Crosstown Church of Christ and took me by their church building. It’s situated in the middle of Tulsa among a neighborhood that has gone through a lot of social change over the years. So much potential for kingdom work their and Robert has the passion for that kind of work. Lord, bring gospel fruit from the gospel seeds this church is planting.
  • I took some time out to meet with the elders of a church in Oklahoma about their search for a new minister. Perhaps a move to Oklahoma is on the horizon… perhaps, but it’s too early to know for sure. In the meantime, if you know of a church looking for a minister where I might be a good fit then let me know.
  • There was one class where the speaker seemed (in my opinion) to use a lot of guilt and fear to motivate people for evangelism. I don’t understand this. Using guilt and fear might motivate people but it will only last as long as there is someone to keep heaping on the guilt and fear. And that never produces maturity. A better, more healthy way, of motivating people for evangelism seems to happen by inviting people into the compelling story of the gospel in such a way that they want to participate in it and share it.
  • Pie night at the dinner… a chocolate peanut-butter pie. Enough said there!
  • My son was asking me about what “grace” is. So we had a good conversation about grace. He understands as a young seven-year old boy does. His response, “I just want to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • That’s what I want to do as well. Sometimes we do that well and sometimes we don’t.
  • Traveling back, we spent the night in St. Louis and then had breakfast with Bob Clark, who preaches for the Lafayette Church of Christ where my son and I stopped our travels to worship with other Christians. Mike Brown led the church in worship and Bob preached through Mark 10. As for me, I left with an overwhelming reminder that the Lord’s mercy is upon me and leading me to live as a merciful servant just like him. That’s also why I need to take time out from traveling on the road and gather with the church. To God be the glory!
  • Nearly 3,000 mils of driving latter and fifteen hours spent driving on Sunday, I am still physically exhausted. But I am glad I went.
  • To God be the glory!

Did you go to the Tulsa Workshop? If so, share some of your experiences.

Agents of Grace

One of the books I’m reading through is Captive to the Word of God by Miroslav Volf. The author offers reflects on how scripture forms the theological mind so that belief and practice remain conjoined and interwoven. The idea is that what we believe is evident in our practices and therefore our practices declare what we believe.*

On Belief and Practice

The relationship between belief and practice has everything to do with our understanding of the grace of God. Volf picks up on this when he says, “Inscribed in the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents. In a precisely defined way that guards the distinction between God and human beings, human beings themselves are made participants in the divine activity and therefore are inspired, empowered, and obligated to imitate it.” (p. 51-52). So when we reflect upon the grace of God and how we become agents of this grace, we must ask two important questions: 1) What sort of life has God redeemed us from? 2) What sort of life has God redeemed us for?

By asking these two questions we are saying that the grace of God is both a salvation from and salvation to something. Therefore, in surrendering our will so that God may make us into an agent of his grace, we are letting go of an old way of life while simultaneously embracing a new way of life. The old life is the myriad of ways that have pulled us away from our created intent, while the new way of life is the remaking of our created intent which we receive from and learn how to live in Jesus Christ. In Colossians Paul says, “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above… …since you have put off the old man with its practice and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of the one who created it” (3:1, 9-10, NET).

Beliefs and practices belong together. Our believing commits us to practicing and our particular beliefs commit us to particular practices which we cannot neglect if we truly believe. This isn’t to say that we will perfectly practice our beliefs or never find ourselves neglecting certain aspects of our practices but to say that if we believe, it will become evident in the way we live. For those who have trouble reconciling the teaching of Paul with the teaching of James (cf. Js. 2:17-19), it should be evident that they both are really on the same page.

Participants of the Story

By learning to practice our beliefs, putting away our old self and putting on the new self, we allow God to remake us as agents of grace. That is to say, as we have received the grace of God, so we become conduits of that grace in the way we live. This is our way of life and it includes the ways in which we cease living as and the ways in which we embrace, learning to live as Christ. It’s the way of Christ.

As I reflect on this, I have one final thought. Throughout scripture we read the stories of people like Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Hannah, David, Daniel, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, etc… In these stories we see how God worked, accomplishing the seemingly impossible because of their enormous faith. Such stories challenge and inspire us as they should. We read these stories as part of the biblical narrative, joining the story. Yet we must realize that our participation in the story may involve the seemingly impossible tasks of our ancestors, our participation will always involve letting go of the old and putting on the new.

Our call is one that emanates from the grace of God and therefore is one that embraces the grace of God, turning from and turning to, becoming agents of that grace!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 29, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.