Tag Archives: Hope

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.


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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.

Christian Witness: The Memory of Hope in a Secular Time

Over all, I have enjoyed a very good life. I was raised by Christian parents in a household with two brothers and two sisters. I’ve always had food on the table, adequate health care, and I’ve been blessed with a good education. Today I am a Christian and I’ve been able to spend much of my adult life serving as a minister with local churches which is something I love doing. I’ve been able to travel both nationally and internationally, which is more travel than a lot of people enjoy. Additionally, I have been married to my wonderful wife Laura for nearly nineteen years and we have been blessed with three wonderful children. So when I come home, I can definitely say that life is good.

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I have much to be thankful for and probably more so than I am even aware. So much that I give thanks to God each day for the life I have. Yet there have been times when life has been difficult. At the age of sixteen, I was critically injured in a car accident that should have been fatal. I was only twenty-three years old when my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive stage-4 cancer in his pancreas and died two months later. There have been times when my family and I have had very little financial resources to live on, creating a lot of unnecessary stress. However, the most difficult part of life came when my oldest son died, followed a year later by the death of my younger brother. That was such a difficult period of life and looking back, to think that I have thus survived this journey of grief I am on is sheerly by the grace of God.

In all of the ups and downs of life, I can still surely say that life is good. That doesn’t mean that life is always easy or pleasant. What makes life good is God, who blesses each day with existence and also blesses the existence of life with a future hope in Jesus Christ.

Now admittedly, if it were not for this future hope in Jesus Christ then a lot of life would seem like one big cruel joke. I say that because there is too much bad, too much evil, and too much pain that goes on and that seems especially true for people in certain parts of the world where every-single-day is a constant struggle among abject poverty, living with systematic injustices, and having the apparent the cruel misfortunes of being born the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong nationality, etc…

I can’t explain why the bad exists… Well, I probably could begin to do so but at the end of the day, all such explanations seem inadequate. So I won’t. What I will say is that despite the bad, life is still good and I believe it is so because of the promise of hope that God has made in Jesus Christ. As scripture says in 1 Peter 1:3-5:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heave for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This is the Christian difference regarding life. Life is good not because of the present circumstances, which are ever changing for better and worse, but because the future is salvation — life redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

As Christians we can’t forget this and lose our memory of hope. In this time of secularism that has become America, the secularist sees hope for the future when the economy is strong, when good paying jobs are plentiful, when the children are doing well in school and extra-curricular activities, and so forth. But as nice as that is, it could all be gone tomorrow.  As Christians though, we see things differently and must. We see through our memory of hope, recalling the story of Jesus that culminates in his crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation. Because of that, we know the future full of hope. Our memory of hope is our Christian witness and we speak of it as an invitation for our secular neighbors to discover what can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

 

Disruptive: The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus

Nobody, or at least most people, do not enjoy having their lives disrupted. But for most of us, it does happen. Think of a horrific car accident, being diagnosed with a terrible disease, etc… When such disruptions happen, one thing is for sure: life will be different!*

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The crucifixion of Jesus was a disruptive occasion for sure. In fact, Jesus dying on the cross is really the preeminent disruption of history as well as the climatic disruption within the biblical narrative. As Jesus hangs nailed to the cross and utters in his last dying breath “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) before finally dying, what has transpired is a horrid and violent moment of injustice. Here hangs in death the Son of God, the one who has unconditionally loved those around him without any judgment. But now this Messiah has been crucified—nailed to the cross—like many other Jews who became a political threat to the Pax Romana. The death of Jesus now seems like a reminder that the power of the sword, wielded by a conspiracy between Jewish religious authorities and the governance of Rome, wins. This death, with its display of power, is symbolic of rulers everywhere.

But then came the third day, which we now call Easter Sunday. On that morning the tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty. The grave of death was powerless to hold Jesus, who has been raised from death. And now vindicated by his Father who has raised him by the power of the Spirit, this only begotten Son of God has overcome. Victory is at hand! The cross, which appeared as the mighty power of human authority on display, is revealed as the power of God that overcomes sin and death.

“No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection.”

The Pax Romana, which was never really true peace, has been overcome by Jesus who now appears saying “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19, 26). And now having born the sins of the world and suffered the cost of death, Jesus has won the victory through crucifixion and resurrection.

This is the preeminent disruption for sure and life will surely be different but not for the reasons we might think. We live in a world that still clings to coercive power and self-justifying violence as the means of maintaining authority over others. But no matter how the rulers of this world try, it’s a losing effort. No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection. The crucified Jesus has been raised from death as a promise of hope for all who believe. The old life of self-serving and might-makes-right governing, of which the powers of this world cling to, is done. The days of that old life are numbered, they are coming to an end. For there is a new life, and eternal life characterized love and peace, of which Jesus is the benevolent king.

Now here is why this disruption matters. It leaves us with is a disruptive question: On whose side will we stand? Will we choose the old life whose power expressed in death has been rendered impotent, or the new life of peace whom the crucified and resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, offers?

Let us choose wisely and not be stupid!

* A shorter and slightly different version of this blog post was published as an article for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

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In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

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.