History begins with an explosion of Divine creativity. Eden is birthed and man lives in communion with God, in harmony with creation, and in the gift of God’s shalom. And yet, even in this glorious state, God declares one thing is not good. What is this one thing? God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
God declares isolation is not good. God’s intent for creation, and more specifically, God’s intent for people, is not independence and aloneness. Rather, it is to experience life-giving connectedness with God and with the imago Dei. Inter-dependence is one of God’s sacred gifts.
Behavioral research reinforces our awareness of the negative impact of isolation, characterized by high levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and stress. Both biblical revelation, as well as clinical research, reinforces our understandings of isolation’s dark effects.
Professional counselors have a bird’s eye view of COVID19’s isolating effects on individuals and families. Over the last 8 months, the isolation associated with COVID19 has created a significant surge in persons seeking help as “shelter in place” orders were issued in the spring, lay-offs and furloughs were implemented late in the summer as PPP funds were depleted, and struggles with addictions and mental health among the masses intensified. For those active in Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and many other twelve-step programs, being with other people is essential to experience recovery. In 12-step communities, COVID’s isolating effects have been devastating for individuals and families. Missy and I couldn’t help but notice how busy the liquor store became at the entrance to Costco at the outbreak of the pandemic. This would be confirmed in due time, along with its tragic effects, through well-written articles.
Christian Pastors have a dual-lens in this era of history; one that observes the negative effects of a pandemic on mental health, as well as one that beholds the negative effect COVID has had on the purposes of the Church and the spiritual health of her people (When you see the word, “church” try to think “people” and not an institution).
Think and reflect prayerfully on the following, with the realization of God’s intent for the good of His people wed with His glory:
The New Testament blazes with the white-hot admonition for Christians not to neglect our regular rhythms of coming together:
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do;” Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)
The New Testament burns with intensity regarding the importance of what we practice in our coming together:
We are to “spur one another on to good works,” “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “forgive one another,” “forebear with one another.” In fact, the “one-anothers” are used 100 times in 94 verses in the
New Testament to instruct us in how we are to be intentional in caring for one another and “building each other up” as we come together.
The New Testament boils with passionate language in how we are to channel our devotion:
“They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship.” Acts 2:42 (NLT)
In the Greek text, the word translated devoted (proskartereo) means “hold fast to something, continue or persevere in something.” In other words, we are to hold fast and persevere in being intentional about being with one another. (You can watch and listen to teaching on this topic HERE).
John Wesley, when speaking of one of the purposes of the church regarding Christians growing in sanctification, affirmed the following conviction, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley’s context for this statement is not related to social justice as some have falsely claimed. Rather, he is referring to Christians needing to experience social connectedness with other Christians to develop in Christ-likeness. This matter was so convictional for Wesley he developed the methods of Methodism through the gathering of societies, bands, and class meetings. To be a Methodist Christian was to be disciplined in regular discipleship rhythms taking place through deep connections with other believers.
As we live in a pandemic, we will continue to see upticks in COVID cases in the Winter months to come. And even after the COVID19 vaccine is distributed, we will still be living with COVID in our midst for a while. There is no perfect, completely safe time to come back together for social connectedness in worship and discipleship in the near future. And in light of occasional surges of COVID, I honor the difficult decisions our Council on Servant Ministries has had to make over these many months. When we do return, which I hope will be sooner than later, we will continue to wear masks and social distance. And if you are elderly or immuno-compromised, one needs to be mindful of making choices that are best for you as it relates to being in crowds.
United Methodist theologian, Dr. Kevin Watson, appealed to the church back in August to not let fear govern decisions regarding gathering for in-person worship. Watson’s urging was based on encouraging the church not to forsake the purposes for which she was created, which is all the more important in the lives of people living in the context of a pandemic. He stated,
“Study Gnosticism, why it is a heresy, and why the body is an essential part of the Christian life and part of what needs to be saved. Corporate worship with bodies present matters. There are going to be seasons in the midst of a pandemic when it is impossible to responsibly gather corporately in the flesh. But we must not pretend that what we do in the midst of those times is as good as the physically gathered body. It just isn’t.”
As we navigate through a unique time, it is essential that we do not fall into default thinking that believes I can both give myself to God and not give myself to His Body. We are designed for both. The vertical is the priority, and the horizontal is the result. For some of you reading this, you were not active with the body of Christ before the pandemic. This is a good time to ask yourself what God would want to teach you. Perhaps corporate worship and discipleship with others is something you did not see or appreciate before; but COVID, and the isolation it has created, serves to awaken your spiritual senses. Being in-person with your church family is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of God’s design.
This is a good hour in history to ask ourselves: Are these matters convictional or optional for me as a Christian? Is my participation in the gathering of the body of Christ to magnify God through worship, and participating in discipleship gatherings merely a part of routines I had grown accustomed to before COVID, or are they seen as essential purposes for my life?
A.W. Tozer, in his classic work, “Man, The Dwelling Place of God,” writes,
“The important thing about man is not where he goes when he is compelled to go, but where he goes when he is free to go where he will. The apostles went to jail, and that is not too revealing because they went there against their will; but when they got out of jail and could go where they would they immediately went to the praying company. From this we learn a great deal about them. The choices of life, not the compulsions, reveal character.
A man is absent from church on Sunday morning. Where is he? If he is in a hospital having his appendix removed his absence tells us nothing about him except he is ill; but if he is out on the golf course, that tells us a lot. To go to the hospital is compulsory; to go to the golf course, voluntary. The man is free to choose and he chooses to play instead of to pray. His choice reveals what kind of man he is. Choices always do.”
For many of God’s people, there is a longing to press into the purposes for which we were created; not because gathering with other believers is familiar or it’s our normal routine, but because gathering with other believers is the kind of people we are. For many, gathering with fellow believers for worship and discipleship is not optional, it’s convictional.
To gather with other believers to glorify God, treasure Jesus Christ, love others, and make disciples of all peoples, is to step into the very purposes for which we were created. It is also a sign of faithfulness to the vows most of us made before a Holy God when we committed to being in membership with a local body of believers through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
The late Tom Wood, one of the saints of Christ Church, used to say, “The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” The following is certain, we will come out of this pandemic at some point. We have had multiple pandemics in history. We have come out of all of them.
What is uncertain is this; will you come out of this pandemic the same? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh resolve for Christ? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh commitment to worship and discipleship in person, present with His body, and expressing mission together to a dying world? Will you waste your wilderness, or will you allow God to do a new work in you for His glory?
If you can answer rightly in God’s eyes, Eden awaits you.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman Patrick Lawler, founded two Patricia B. Hammonds Homes of Hope for orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The homes are operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the boards of The Wellhouse, The Compassionate Hope Foundation, and the East Lake Initiative. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111.
She doesn’t have words for this
But does she need them
When the whole world trembles with the same fear
Grieves the same loss of the illusion of control
Grabs at the same threads of hope
Watches the same sun move across the same sky
Waiting for the resurrection
I am writing this the day before Easter Sunday. How strange that my feelings of sadness about our current world mixed with doubt, fear, anxiety must have also mirrored that of Jesus’ followers. And yet, I know there is hope tomorrow. There is joy and song and new life. There is a hallelujah that is bubbling up from my throat that I almost can’t contain.
I read the above poem on Instagram this week and it just hit home for me.
I don’t have words for what we are all going through. Do I even need them?
We are all trembling together. We are all staying home keeping our babies safe, happy, and entertained.
We are grieving the control and routine we used to have. The leisurely walks through Target are a thing of the past. The carpool lines, play dates, library trips and playground visits are nonexistent.
We are grabbing at threads of hope or toilet paper. Maybe it’s the hour when our husband (whose job is essential) walks through the door or clocks out at his home office, maybe when the mail arrives with our stimulus check, or even the baby’s nap. Yet none of those things offer the everlasting hope and always leave us wanting more.
Watching the same sun move across the same sky, Waiting for the resurrection. Waiting for the quarantine to be lifted? No, something better is offered. The weight of sin has been lifted. He has risen (Mark 16:6). We know that our Redeemer lives (Job 19:25). Even in our hard, long days of isolation, we are not alone. We are not dead in our sin; we are alive with Christ (Col 2:13).
Mommas, I don’t know if we will get to meet this summer for Mom Time. Nothing is guaranteed. Was it ever? What I do know is that you are not alone. And in these heavy days, cling closer to the cross. Lean into his words in scripture. Abide in him. I know I have good days and bad days as this time marches on but the more I rely on him, the more precious this time with my family is becoming. Remind me of that again at bath time!
CC Women’s Ministry Team
By Michael Bowman
If man had his way, the plan of redemption would be an endless and bloody conflict. In reality, salvation was bought not by Jesus’ fist, but by His nail-pierced hands; not by muscle but by love; not by vengeance but by forgiveness; not by force but by sacrifice. Jesus Christ our Lord surrendered in order that He might win; He destroyed His enemies by dying for them and conquered death by allowing death to conquer Him.”― A.W. Tozer
The next day, Holy Saturday is a time of solitude and sabbath. It is a chance for us to meditate on the time that Jesus was dead and buried. This Saturday is one of anticipation because we know the end of the story.
We know that death is not the end. We know that, soon, Jesus is walking out of that tomb. Yet, we wait with anticipation and longing. We await the coming of the third day, where our true hope is found.
Because of Easter, you and I are new people living in a new world.
We fell away from what we were intended to be, as beloved daughters and sons created to bear the image God. Yet, on Easter, our image was restored. We have been mended back together, and our broken relationship with God has been made right again. This does not mean that evil no longer exists, for it does. However, its power is no longer final. We are living in the already but not yet, where all is now new, and yet God is continuing to restore all things. And this is what we come together to celebrate on Easter Sunday: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
[author] [author_info]Michael is the grateful husband to Sara. They are the lucky parents of their son, Grady.
Michael has earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, and a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary.
Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, and playing with their son. Being from Memphis, he is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.[/author_info] [/author]
The Journey of Epiphany
And what it means for us
By Michael Bowman
Celebrating the Original Journey
In the Church, the season celebrated after Christmas is called Epiphany. At Christmas, our major focus is on God coming to his people. During Epiphany, the focus shifts to our going to God.
In our last Advent post, we paid some attention to a group of people Matthew calls “wise men from the East.” These men were some of the only people to recognize that Jesus Christ had been born. And of the few people who actually took notice of Jesus’ birth, these “wise men” journeyed far to witness it.
Not only that, but when they showed up in Jerusalem, they went straight to the King and asked where this newly born “King of the Jews” was so that they could pay him homage (See Matthew 2.)
But again, we do not know much about these men. We know that these group of individuals realized the child being born in Bethlehem from Micah’s prophecy would be a ruler, a shepherd, to God’s people, Israel (See Micah 5.) Other than that, we know they were from the East and were totally bent on finding this baby king to show him the respect he deserved.
Being from the East, these people had to make some kind of journey in order to even see this child. And Epiphany is all about celebrating that journey.
At Epiphany, we are invited to celebrate the journey of all God’s people who are seeking after God and his Kingdom. We are all looking for hope, peace, love, justice, holiness and wholeness.
The wise men were, too. They were naive enough to believe what a prophet had spoken hundreds of years before, and decided to risk a journey to a distant land with only a star for a guide. Come on, these people were dreamers at the very least.
But they went anyway. They had an idea of what might be waiting for them at the end of their journey, but they had no clue what to expect. They packed up gifts custom fit for a king, having no clue what the King would be like. And what they found when they reached the end of their quest brought them to their knees.
“The feast of Epiphany invites us to listen to the voice of God and step forth on a spiritual pilgrimage; to enter a new secular year forgetting all that lies behind and ignoring all that seems reasonable today; to trust in the possibility of God’s dream and go forth carrying with us the gold of love, the incense of longing, and the myrrh of suffering. Epiphany invites us to dream the impossible dream and strive with the last ounce of our courage to reach the unreachable star.”
(John H. Westerhoff III, A Pilgrim People)
I could not say it any better than that.
Be Still and Know
During Epiphany, we continue seeking out, turning over rocks, and looking around every corner for God’s Kingdom. We pay attention for God’s activity in us and around us. And in doing so, we are to manifest the present reality of God’s Kingdom to others around us.
We should follow in stride how Andrew ran and grabbed his friend Simon Peter after meeting Jesus, saying to him, “We have found the Messiah! Come and see!” (John 1:40-42). Or even Philip who finds Nathanael and shares the same message, “We have found the guy that Moses and all of the prophets were talking about! Come and See!” (John 1:43-46).
As we experience the good news of Jesus, we are to share it with others. We are to teach in the way Jesus taught, not for the transfer of information, but for life transformation. That may mean talking less and listening more.
Jesus was all about show and tell. His main message was the Kingdom, but not only did he talk about it, he revealed what it was like. He was inclusive. He ate with, talked with, and spent time with the outcasts and marginalized. He went to parties and made them better. He spent time with the lowest in society and those who were well-off in the culture of his day.
We are to continue in this way. May I remind you that Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-20). And in being so, we are to be an epiphany for others. For example, when we love our neighbors as we are commanded to do, we are to love in such a way that brings about God’s reign and rule, his justice and peace, his freedom and equality, unity and wholeness, for all that we encounter.
This Epiphany season, stop and be still long enough to hear God’s voice, in whatever way he may be speaking to you. Then, dare to follow through on what he says.
Listen to him. Remember Jesus’s transfiguration when God speaks from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
Believe him. Accept his invitation for a free and light life (Matthew 11:28-30) and go to him.
Don’t Miss Christmas
By Michael Bowman
So, pause. Do not miss it.
The Birth, According to…
But who were these “wise men?”
We Three… Dudes?
These “wise men” or “magi” as most scholars agree are better referred to as astrologers. They were not kings, and there is no evidence that there were only three of them (don’t believe the Christmas carol.)
It can’t be more clear: they all missed it.
The Free Gift of Christmas
Michael Bowman is the Student Minister at Christ Church UMC. He is the grateful husband of Sara and dad to Grady. Michael earned his B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, where he met Sara. He also holds a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, playing basketball, and playing with their two dogs, Gus and Lily. As a good Memphis native, Michael is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.
Follow him on Twitter: @bichaelmowman