Heart Talks with Pastor Freeman

Hope and Grief Living Together – 1 Thessalonians 4:13

On December 1, 1975, just after nightfall, I received the phone call from Folkston, GA Momma had died. An 8.6 magnitude earthquake rocked my world followed by an otherworldly tsunami. I was 15 and I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. Surviving this seemed impossible.
 
Events like Momma’s death affect all people regardless of one’s relationship with Jesus. They are painful. The pain of death is universal. How we handle that pain is not. I am often troubled in the world of church how often we equate expressing the pain as being contrary to true faith. I reject that notion. When a person is stabbed, they scream; saved or not.
 
As Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, (Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) he had to deal with two very powerful realities:
  1. The return of Jesus was not as immediate as some had believed.
  2. Those who died before Jesus’ return were considered lost.
 
Death was real for the early believers, just as it is for us. What we think about death and the life to come is the repository for our hope.
 
Frequently, this text is used to say that grief is a demonstration of having no hope. Paul’s comparison is not grief versus no grief. Rather, it is hope versus no hope. Key elements of this theme are also captured in 1 Corinthians 15: (Read the chapter! It is awesome!)
  1. The timing of Jesus’ return does not alter the eternal hope given when one accepts the Christ.
  2. Death is already a defeated foe.
  3. There will be a family reunion of believers (queue the O’Jays singing “Family Reunion”).
 
I love old school music. I especially love vinyl records. One of the biggest fears for a vinyl record was for the record to get a scratch. With a scratch, the needle (stylus, for you audiophiles) would get stuck in the same place on the record causing the record to skip. You would have to give the needle a little nudge so the music would continue. If the scratch was large enough, the needle would have to be nudged a few times during the course of a single play. Sometimes you would have to buy a new vinyl if the record was too badly scratched. Unlike vinyls, death doesn’t give us the option of buying a new reality. So we are encouraged that when our life (the vinyl record) is marred by death (scratched), hope (the nudge) helps our lives get back on track.
 
November marked the 40th anniversary of Momma’s death. Since she died, I often think about the wound of her absence. But this time it felt different. I couldn’t remember the sound of Momma’s voice. This pain hit my heart as I prepared Resurrection for worship service. I shared this personal moment with my church family as I was not sure I could lead the service. They prayed and encouraged me. Even with a heavy heart, I continued to lead worship. Why? I had the hope that I will see Momma again for a little family reunion.

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Social Justice: The Heart of the Church – Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1, and Micah 6:8

I recently read a Facebook post that claimed only 13 percent of Black churches supported the social justice work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was alive. Given the high esteem with which he is recognized in the Black church today, I found that statistic to be mind-blowing. How can almost 90% of the black church abdicate its role in leading the way to freedom: Freedom for those occupying its pews?
 
There are two possible explanations for such a reality:
  • The church and the world at large have accepted the sterilized image of Rev. Dr. King that bears very little similarity to the real man in which we need to re-read his writings.
  • Or neither the church of Rev. Dr. King’s era nor the church of today see the work of social justice as central to the Gospel of Jesus.
While engaged for five years in the work of social justice as President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), my beloved congregation cheered me on. I strived to teach that the work of social justice was not a ‘side activity,’ but a central demand of the Gospel. As children of God, we are all called and anointed to make a difference in the lives of those we come in contact with.
 
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus invoked the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The first words are, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” (Luke 4:18) The Spirit that is upon Jesus is the same Spirit that now lives within all believers. It is the Spirit that empowers us to fulfill the decree of Jesus when He said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” (John 14:12 NLT) What works did Jesus do? Progressing through the Luke text, we say that Jesus
  1. Preached the gospel to the poor,
  2. Healed the brokenhearted,
  3. Recovered sight to the blind,
  4. Set at liberty the oppressed, and
  5. Proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord.
 
We, as children of God, have missed the fullness of our anointing (consecrated assignment), because we limit this work to just the Spirit domain. Therefore, helping people to think spiritually became PIIN’s objective. Most churches behave as if people’s poverty, broken heartedness, blindness, and oppression are someone else’s responsibility. We, the church, are not the source of resolution to the social ills. However, we must be the prophetic voice demanding, “Let my people go,” as Moses declared these words but they were the divine command of God!
 
The miraculous works of Jesus punctuated His calling and ours to declare a pathway to spiritual wholeness. Tending to immediate, physical needs preceded any discussion of the spiritual for many who experienced Jesus’s miracles. In fact, sometimes the discussion of the spiritual never occurred. In Luke 17, after healing ten lepers, only one returned to worship Jesus. Jesus indeed recognized the slight, but of greater importance is the slight did not stop him for setting others free from their immediate bondage.
 
This work did not just begin with Jesus, nor is the unstable condition of the modern church witnessed only today. Indeed, the Prophet Micah was used of God to call the children of Israel to repentance (turning away from their current behavior and thought). Micah used these powerful sets of words: what is good and what does the Lord require of you. The things that follow in the passage are not suggestions. They are central to living out authentic relationships with God. Those things are, “But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b, NASB)
 
When the church actively engages in the work of delivering people from the immediate hell they find themselves in, it makes the truth of our witness of deliverance from a spiritual hell that more credible. Social justice, like preaching, does not guarantee people will accept the claims of Jesus. But, like preaching, social justice work makes the journey more desirable.

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Combatting Pride – Psalm 139:14

Over the past few weeks in my career as a pediatric chaplain, I’ve witnessed three suicides and five overdoses, one of which was fatal. Over my 17 year career as a chaplain, I’ve had the privilege to walk with the survivors. The despair seems to leap from their souls. A common thread in most of their stories was that these children were bullied. My heart yearned to grapple with bullying from a biblical perspective. What gives rise to behaviors that devastate the soul so much that suicide and drugs are viewed as legitimate means of rescue? The biblical theme that undergirds bullying is pride.
 
In a recent sermon, to inject a little lightheartedness, I commented on how I sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. When I catch that glimpse, I pause and say, “WOW! Look what God has done!” What struck me, just like in the hearts of bullies, is I often put the emphasis on the “WOW,” while forgetting I am observing the handiwork of Divinity—God! It hit me that this mindset is nothing more than pride. At some level, the “WOW” suggests I had a definitive hand in the design of what I have become.
 
Bullying is pride gone too far. Bullying, at its core, is a heart condition that states I am better than someone else. Bullying, acted out, takes on at least three dimensions: 1) Bring down someone I think is ‘higher’ than they ought to be. 2) Keep someone in their place that I think is ‘less than’ me. 3) Lift myself above others.
 
Psalm 139:14 opens with the words, “I will praise You (GOD).” THAT’S the cure for bullying! To praise God is to exalt God for what GOD HAS DONE! It places me in a calm place of humility that there is Someone (God) in control of this. In truth, I had zero to do with the complexion of my skin, my height, the shape of my face, nose or eyes. I did not orchestrate the nature of my vocal cords. My ‘raw materials’ were presented to me without any consultation with me. Thank you God for what you have given me.
 
The psalmist continues by saying a few words about the attitude God possessed when God made each of us. I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (KJV). In their original language, the word ‘fearful’ means ‘with reverence’ and ‘wonderfully’ translates ‘with distinctiveness.’ In other words, when God made us, God took time to make us with our own uniqueness. The joy is that I am unique and a product of the Divine work of God. My external was God’s doing! I can’t brag and I can’t belittle myself. We each are God’s design.
 
The human eye must come to terms with the reality that God’s ULTIMATE design is very often flawed by the crude hand of sin (not sins. We will talk about that later.). All humanity lives in a sin-sick creation. As a consequence, we see the effects everyday: disease, mutations, malformations, etc. These are NOT God’s design. Thus, if sin has left its imprint on God’s design, no one has the authority to belittle anyone for that which they had no control. In fact, all of us, like birthmarks, are imprinted with some vestige of the consequences of sin. Though it may not be evident to the eye, we all are scarred. This should get rid of any tendency to bully someone else. (See Psalm 55:5.)
 
God’s design is our ‘raw material.’ Sin is evil’s ‘impurities’ in God’s design. But, what do we do with sins? Sins are our actions that we do that can have the consequences of blemishing God’s design for us. To counter the bullying and prideful spirit, allow me to offer a few insights. First, many of us have done the exact things (sins) that have left others outwardly scarred, yet we emerge outwardly unscathed. This truth should lead us to praise God, not wag our finger at (bully) others. Secondly, when we acknowledge our part (sins) in our own situations, the door for healing and restoration is flung wide open. (Read Matt. 11:28!) Healing and restoration are the byproducts of forgiveness.
 
When we see others struggling with the consequences of their sins, or we see others berating others because of those consequences, we are given the marvelous privilege to counter the bully whether within or without.

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