There may not be a single cemetery in Massachusetts or in the entire country that is willing to be Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s final resting place…and that has left Peter Stefan in a very difficult spot. “I think (the cemeteries that have been asked) probably fear reprisals from people who have loved ones being buried there, people who may potentially buy lots there,” the funeral director said.
Since this story surfaced a few days ago, the body has been buried in an unmarked location in Virginia. This action should relieve some of the unhappiness expressed by many in Worcester, Massachusetts exemplified by picketers outside the funeral home denouncing plans to bury the marathon bomb suspect in their community. One held a sign that read, “Bury the garbage in the landfill.”
Let me state right up front that I understand the emotion of the people who oppose Tsarnaev being buried in their community. What he did was heinous and horrendous. Only a terrorist would consider setting off a bomb at an event such as the Boston Marathon as anything but heinous and horrendous. I have to admit that I have had and continue to have feelings of vengeance toward these two brothers and toward all who assisted or encouraged them. I want them to be punished to the fullest extent. I grieve for the pain that they have imposed on the victims, their family and friends, and to the communities most affected by the bombs and the aftermath.
Having said that, something has been nagging at me that causes me to wonder if this is not one of those moments in which we have an opportunity to respond in a way that is different from what we would do on our own and from what seems most natural.
When I first read the story of the funeral director’s dilemma, two questions came to mind. In the spirit of Christ, should we be willing to bury him in a cemetery in our community? As followers of Christ, would we be willing to bury him in a cemetery in our community? These are not easy questions for me (and I assume for you) to answer. I want to be as far removed as possible from people who would have such blatant disregard for human life that they would murder and injure innocent people. Nevertheless, something about the way in which the burial has been reported and responded to makes me think that this presents us with an opportunity to respond in a surprising, Christ-like way.
Of course, I am speaking as someone who is significantly removed from the pain of the people of Boston. I grieve with them. I sympathize with them. It’s much easier to be gracious from a distance than in the middle of the situation; it’s much easier to think about a monumental act of kindness as a relatively uninvolved by-stander than as someone burying a loved one or as someone helping a family member deal with a life-changing injury. I hope that no one interprets my questions as insensitivity to the suffering or as some sense of a higher moral standard in which I am subtly and arrogantly chastising people who may be responding to the situation differently. I am simply trying to process the questions that are coming to me.
I can’t get out of my mind the scriptural admonitions for responding to people who are in the category of enemy—either from their perspective or ours. Jesus teaches, You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:43-44). Paul writes, Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT).
In this case our actions would not be for the one to whom we do good, though it might affect his family; it is for us who do the good. We grow more like Christ (1 Peter 3:9). We learn a lesson about love when our inclination is anything but. We learn that we are called to something more: to love, to be generous, even to face ridicule because of our generous acts of love. This point was driven home to me by none other than Jonathan Edwards, perhaps most recognized for his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
In his sermon On Christian Love, Edwards said: We are to do good both to the good and to the bad. This we are to do, as we would imitate our heavenly Father, for “he (Matthew 5:45) maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” The world is full of various kinds of persons; some good, and some evil; and we should do good to all. We should, indeed, especially, “do good to them that are of the household of faith,” or that we have reason, in the exercise of charity, to regard as saints. But though we should most abound in beneficence to them, yet our doing good should not be confined to them, but we should do good to all men as we have opportunity. While we live in the world, we must expect to meet with some men of very evil properties, and hateful dispositions and practices. Some are proud, some immoral, some covetous, some profane, some unjust or severe, and some despisers of God. But any or all these bad qualities should not hinder our beneficence, or prevent our doing them good as we have opportunity.
Now that Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been buried, the precise scenario is no longer an issue for us, but the reality of life is that we all encounter people who hurt us, who treat us as enemies and whom we treat as enemies. What are we going to do about them? Honestly, I would rather just go on treating them the way I want to treat them, but I know that I can’t. It may take some time and healing to get there, but we are called to something different. Jesus seems to imply that how we respond to enemies is directly connected to making progress in our journey to be like Christ.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born and raised a proper Anglican. Wesley believed that God has a prescribed way of living life and practicing faith—one does things in the right way at the right time and in the right place. Nowhere was this concept of propriety more important to Wesley than in the church. He found, however, that because his sermons were evangelical, the doors of the churches in England were closed to his ministry. He pondered and prayed about what to do.
Wesley’s friend, George Whitefield, encouraged him to change his strategy. Whitefield had had great success preaching out of doors and was challenging Wesley to do the same. Wesley was in a spiritual quandary: he wanted to preach the Gospel of Christ, but everything in his training and experience fought against such a crude practice as Whitefield was suggesting. Eventually, Wesley stepped out in faith and his ministry in the fields, city squares, marketplaces and along the roads became the most productive means of bringing people to Christ.
Wesley wrote in his journal: “I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” And a couple of days later: “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”
Scholars are convinced that the Methodist movement would never have known the blessings it did had Wesley refused this new, uncomfortable and difficult step of faith.
God continually calls us to openness about our journey with him. This kind of openness is difficult for us…it always has been. This is the point that Jesus makes in Matthew 11 when he praises the Father that “these things” have been hidden from the learned and wise but revealed to little children. Children, who are inherently open and willing to try new things, are commended by Jesus as the very model of how all of His followers ought to live.
Remember when the disciples try to push the children away, Jesus says, “Unless you humble yourself like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children are typically considered insignificant by most of the world, but Jesus calls them models to be followed in the kingdom: they are free from false preconceptions and are open to new light, new things; they are readily dependent and trusting and have little problem acknowledging that without their parents they are in grave danger. This is our calling.
Of course, this openness and willingness to take steps of faith is rooted in our need for God and our belief that we can step out safely because we trust ourselves into the arms of our loving heavenly Father.
Jesus is talking about a spirit of openness to God that is going to be the difference between being ready for God to work and missing what God desires to do.
Jesus reminds us that the Father loves to pour out the Holy Spirit upon those who ask Him, and we rejoice in this promise. But are we asking with no strings attached? Are we asking in a spirit of openness to any way God chooses to work? Are we ready for God to bring about change? Or are we holding back because we’re afraid of change, afraid of what the Spirit may want to do in us, or what the Spirit may want to do with us?
This openness to God might well mean a willingness to experience God in ways that stretch us beyond what we like to do and how we like to do it. Even when we feel apprehensive, is our desire for God to do something new and miraculous and powerful greater than our fear or apprehension at trying something new? It’s imperative to remember that openness to God in small things leads to openness to God in larger things. But it also works the other way: refusing to be open to God in the small things leads to refusal to be open to God in the larger things.
Most of us possess an affinity for some kind of music. Our tastes may differ, but at the very least, we have a taste for music. We enjoy music—listening, singing, playing—because it communicates emotion for us or a message for us or a message to us. In one way or another, music expresses something that is happening within us.
In a recent article, Elizabeth Landau admits that though scientists still have much to learn about the connection of music on the brain, new research is uncovering some fascinating ways in which music works on our brains. One study from McGill University in Montreal has found that in patients who are about to undergo surgery, participants who listened to music had less anxiety and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than participants who took anti-anxiety drugs. It’s only one study, but the results are fascinating and reveal what God’s people have always known: music is one of God’s most wonderful gifts.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people play instruments and sing. Sometimes the songs are expressions of gratitude and praise; sometimes the songs are prayers of lament and petition. We find more of the same in the New Testament. In the final hours of his life, Jesus sings hymns with his disciples. Paul encourages the church to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. It also appears that music is the gift that keeps on giving—John’s Revelation describes saints and angels singing praise to God around his throne.
I suspect that you and I connect certain spiritual experiences to music. We might think of a significant spiritual moment when we hear a particular song. We might associate a particular life-changing event when we sing that song. Music emits deep emotion for us which is why we become so protective of the music we love.
I guess it makes sense that something we associate so closely with our most intimate, memorable, and significant moments of life would become a battleground for us. We take it personally when the music we connect with the work of God in our lives is ignored or politely (sometimes not so politely) pushed aside. God used this music to help to change us; to degrade it or to nullify it is tantamount to degrading and nullifying what God has done. In one way or another, despite our age or the music we love, we feel this pain.
Knowing this, let me suggest two actions: 1) be careful about how we treat the music that others love. Remember we are not just talking about music; we are talking about something connected to God’s work in his or her life. 2) give the music that others love and you don’t a chance. Ask him why this music is special? Ask her what experience of God she associates with this song? Both actions are a means of treating others the way we want to be treated; both actions are a means of loving others and affirming God and his work in others’ lives. If every person in the church committed to this perspective about music, the church would begin to look like Jesus intends.
As you are probably aware, Congress and the White House are locked in a struggle over the fiscal future of our nation. I cannot begin to fully understand all of the decisions that are being made, the enormity of the budget, or the implications of the money being spent. I can, however, ask us to think about how we view the process and the larger ideology of the decisions that are being made.
It seems to me that one biblical principle that must bear on the decisions that are made is this: our nation’s fiscal concern should be less about catering to the wealthiest and more concern about helping people who are most needy and least able to help themselves. I recognize that many Christians may bristle at helping those who don’t help themselves. In fact, we often banter around the phrase: God helps those who help themselves. While I believe that God encourages self-initiative, this statement is heresy. The underlying biblical principle is not God does not help those who help themselves; on the contrary, it is God helps us because we can’t help ourselves. This means that if we are to model God’s behavior in this world we will work for the good of people who have little or no power, little or no influence, little or no voice in the structures of government.
I am concerned that too often the primary Christian voice about political influence is self-serving. We are more often than not working to make it easier to operate as Christians; we lobby about issues that are predominately about making life more pleasant and comfortable for us. I am not implying that Christians don’t have the right to speak up for our right to practice our faith; we lament that there are far too many places in the world where Christians are threatened if they openly practice their faith. I am stating that I do not see a biblical basis for exercising our rights to self-promotion. Instead, if we are going to have a voice of influence in government decisions, our responsibility is to create a new paradigm of representing and speaking for people who are unable to do so for themselves. Quite frankly, it seems to me that the majority of decisions made by government is in the best interest of those with the most money, power, influence not those with the least.
The apostle James writes harshly about the church that falls all over itself serving the rich while ignoring the poor. Of course, James learns this lesson from Jesus who tells his disciples that what they do for the least of society they do for him. It’s a radical, counter-cultural mindset as is most everything that Jesus teaches and models, which is why it’s so difficult for us to get it.
What bothers me most about the delays in making decisions and the ultra partisan attitude about the way the decisions are being made is that those who have the least are going to be hurt the most. This ought to alarm us and concern us and when the next election comes along, perhaps how we vote might be reflected in the way those we elect have acted in this whole debacle of self-serving governmental decision-making.
In almost 28 years of ministry, I don’t think that I have ever been a part of a community that experienced a week like this.
In the past 10 days, a 13-year-old boy was diagnosed with lymphoma; a 20-year-old young woman has a brain tumor the nature of which is still being determined; a senior citizen was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in multiple fractures, a couple of surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation; over the weekend a Houghton College student took his own life; and Tuesday morning we discovered that the first cousin of three women in our church was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend, who subsequently committed suicide. In addition, some godly members of the church have died unexpectedly, one of which was buried Monday morning. This is only the public pain; I have no doubt that others are suffering silently and in private.
As you might imagine, our little community is struggling to find our footing. Many are asking questions about why all of this is happening, how we cope and where is God. These questions are natural, helpful and necessary; they are also difficult to answer. We don’t know why any of these tragedies have taken place, much less why they would take place in the span of a few days. Scientists spend a fortune in time and money each year trying to figure the cause of disease and counselors give much time and effort to understanding the depths of despair and pain in the mind, heart and spirit of someone who chooses to end their life.
Fortunately, we have learned some coping mechanisms in times like these, not the least of which is the church. The community of believers holds us steady in uncertainty. The gift of community allows us to express our hurt, fear, anxiety, anger, and pain. The community of faith is a safe place to learn, to grow, to be honest even when our honesty makes others feel uncomfortable. It is the question about God that I believe is most significant, necessary and dangerous all at the same time.
Pondering God’s presence is a significant question because whether we admit it or not, all of life is wrapped up in our view of and relationship with God. Pascal was right when he talked about human beings having a “God-shaped void.” Our questions of God when we are in crisis are an attempt to understand God in the void. The question about God is also necessary in order to get to a healthy end. For too long the church has avoided questions that might put God on the spot (Job’s friends are horrified by Job’s questioning of God). Our hesitancy to be honest with God has been the most profound reason for our waning trust of God. It’s the organization or the CEO who refuses to take questions, who nurtures an attitude of secrecy that breeds a spirit of distrust and makes us wonder what’s really going on behind the scenes. When the church tells us that it’s wrong to probe our struggle by being brutally honest with God, we wonder about what’s really going on behind that curtain. I am convinced, however, that honest, forthright, emotive questioning of God is actually the most dangerous question we ask in times of struggle—not because of what we might find out about God but because of what we might find out about ourselves.
Psalm 46 tells us that even though the earth is shaking to its core and all that we have come to rely on is now unreliable, the one constant is the holy, sovereign God. The Psalmist reiterates what we read of God from Genesis to Revelation: nothing is too great for God, nothing is outside of His wholehearted compassion and mercy and there is no situation into which God cannot and does not go and work for good.
The dangerous element of this truth about God is not that we are surprised at who God is but that we are surprised at who we are. We are surprised at how quickly we turn on God. We are surprised at how quickly we blame God. We are surprised at how quickly we forget all that God has done. We are surprised at how quickly we ignore His amazing promises. We are surprised at how difficult it can be—despite all He has done—to trust Him. This is the dilemma that the Israelites face from the first day of their existence as a nation. Christians are rarely much better.
Nevertheless, if the Bible teaches us one thing about God and crisis, it’s this: God is eternally and perfectly good and we can trust Him (Psalm 62:11-12).
This is not intended as a simplistic answer to a complex and painful situation; it is simply a truth that I pray will be for us a handhold in the midst of life’s relentless perfect storm.
This morning I was reading a sermon by 16th century pastor Huldrych Zwingli about Christian freedom regarding Old Testament dietary laws. Zwingli’s sermon, 30 pages long, outlines every conceivable argument for his position of freedom. It’s actually quite an engaging sermon considering that it’s almost 400 years old.
Pondering his words didn’t cause me to change my diet, though any one who has seen me lately wouldn’t dare argue that a diet wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for me to consider. Notwithstanding my waistline, the sermon caused me to think about other ways in which Christ sets us free from ancient norms and rituals. In Christ, we are free from the ancient animal sacrifices; we are free from living in tents during the Feast of Tabernacles; we are free from laws that declare us unclean if we touch a dead body or get a rash: many of these laws were intended as safety measures at a time in which hygienic practice and antibiotics for disease were unavailable. I would guess that we take much of this for granted.
As I ponder all of the freedom that is ours in Christ, I am brought back to the most profound gift of freedom—loving others. Through his life and ministry, Jesus teaches us that we are not just called to love; we are set free to love.
The foundation for our love for others is Christ’s love for us. We are hesitant to love others because we are afraid to give away what we may not get back, so we hang on to a portion of our love. We find it difficult to love with all of our being because we are skeptical about being loved in return. Christ removes this fear: he loves us without reservation, without condition, without restriction. Christ loves us fully, completely and perfectly…no matter what we do or say. Unlike our love for and from others, his love is in no way conditional. He does not wait to love us until he experiences our love for him; he always initiates love—actually, he is the author of love.
Loving freely, however, has another side as well. To be free to love means that we mimic Christ’s love for us by loving others without reservation. Because Christ loves us, we can love first; because Christ loves us, we can love holding nothing back; because Christ loves, we can love people who hurt us and heal us, who embrace us and shun us, who want to be our friend and who want to be our enemy, who agree with us and who disagree with us. We are free to love even when we know our love won’t be returned in kind. We are free to love as servants even though we are certain that we ought to be treated as royalty. We are free to love despite knowing that our risk-taking love will probably end up in pain and heartache as it does for Christ.
Sometimes freedom is more frightening than confinement. But freedom in Christ is a great gift of God. Because we know that Christ loves us unconditionally and without reservation, we are free to love everyone…regardless. Now, may God give us grace to want him to set us free.
In President Obama’s inaugural speech last week, he spoke forcefully and often about our call as Americans to care for people who find it difficult to care for themselves. In addition to supporting democracy across the globe, he stated thatAmerica“must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.” He also stated that “the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls andSelmaand Stonewall….”
To hear the president speak about these things in these terms is not new. He often calls Americans to think about and act toward people who are mistreated or on the edges of society. What intrigued me about this particular speech is the reference toSeneca Falls.
Seneca Falls,New York, is a two hour drive across I-90 from Houghton. It is a hamlet of fewer than 10,000 people that declares itself the Historic Gateway to theFinger Lakes. This beautiful, picturesque village is also known as the Birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. It is to this claim that President Obama was referring.
As you near Exit 41 on I-90, you will see a huge sign declaring: Seneca Falls: The Birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. Many people know this. What many people do not know, perhaps including the president, is that the First Women’s Rights Convention inAmerica was held in 1848 in theSeneca FallsWesleyanMethodistChurch.
Equal rights for women has been a core element of The Wesleyan Church since its inception. In fact, the social issues of suffragette and abolition were instrumental in the forming of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1843. From the beginning, The Wesleyan Church has given full access for women to use their God-given gifts and graces for ministry including lay leadership, teaching and ordination. Unfortunately, The Wesleyan Church hasn’t always practiced what we preached, but we are working to recover the ground lost over the last decades on this important issue.
The Apostle Paul’s teaching about women in the church has been debated for centuries. I am convinced that his meaning has been misinterpreted thus treating women as second-class citizens in the church. After all, it is the Apostle who emphatically declares: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Wesleyans (and I would hope others) need to recommit ourselves to equal rights for all people—not because we are trying to make a political statement, but because we believe that God does indeed create all of people equal and because we believe that in the kingdom of heaven there is no such thing as second-class citizens. It’s a vital part of our Wesleyan heritage; we pray it will be a part of our Christian future.
Join the discussion of Sunday’s sermon (March 4, 2013).
This is an opportunity for you to ask questions, make comments or engage us as a church in more conversation about this idea.
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