“You probably came with an agenda. Why don’t you write God a letter listing what’s on your mind, place it on the altar in the room, and let God set the agenda.”
That’s what the woman said who graciously greeted me when I arrived at Pacem in Terris recently. And she was right about me having an agenda! I had so much on my mind. I thought I would take a personal retreat to do some long-range planning. I have taken many retreats in my life before, but this was my first silent retreat. My head and heart were full.
I took the advice. I wrote a letter to God upon entering the hermitage where I rested in God for a few days.
Be Still and Know that God is God!
I’ve preached at Christian camps and got to stay in nice cabins while I worked there, but that’s not really camping, according to my friends who are serious campers. As a kid I went camping a couple times during my two years as a Boy Scout. I wheezed in the woods and didn’t find out until much later that I have asthma. I don’t have fond memories of camping, and no real experience doing it. In fact, I’ve teased people who go camping, pretending to be homeless for days at a time. As a city kid who is now a city man, vacations typically involve places with pillows and amenities that I don’t have at home.
But it was my turn to be teased by a dear friend who enjoys camping. After listening to one of my sermon podcasts, she noted how hypocritical I sounded discussing my time at Pacem in Terris. I stayed in a small cabin—a hermitage, they called it. There was no talking, no running water, and no electricity. However, there was an outhouse, a simple gas burner only to be used for heating a teakettle, and plenty of mosquitoes! I was a hermit for a few days. As an introvert, I got a taste of heaven (if heaven means we get our own separate quarters and don’t have to deal with other people for days at a time! I think that would be hell for some extroverts I know).
After I wrote my letter to God and placed it on the altar, Psalm 46:10 came to mind:
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
Pacem has that verse on its website, and I recited that verse to myself several times during my days in the hermitage. My goal was simply to be still. It wasn’t easy, but I tried. I wrote in my journal when I felt prompted to do so. I decided not to live with a “have to” attitude, as I tend to live so much of my life, but instead simply be alone with God. It was wonderful because it was freeing.
Casting My Cares Onto God
I won’t get into all that I received from my personal retreat, but there is one I thing I want to share that I hope is helpful. It relates to letting God set our agendas.
I took my hermitage at a time when I was close to turning in the draft of a manuscript. I had been working on a commentary on the New Testament letter called 1 Peter for the Story of God Bible Commentary series. Right near the end of the letter, the apostle Peter writes “Cast all your anxiety on him [God], because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7). Those are powerful words, especially for Peter’s original readers, who were harassed, slandered, and in many ways marginalized from the broader society. Those early Christians lived a stressed-out existence. When Peter writes of “casting,” he uses a word that typically described tossing a load onto a beast of burden. Peter says, in essence, that God can carry our loads.
In the spirit of letting God set the agenda, I started a practice that I hope can continue. I try to write down, at the start of the day, the things that I am concerned about. And there are many! I have battled insomnia because of what weighs on me. Some of you never have that problem; you are not worriers. But others of you may be able to relate to my experience with sleeplessness. I now begin the day by casting my cares onto God, not in theory, but by actually listing my concerns. This is one concrete step I’ve taken toward reducing stress and truly trusting God. I needed to feel the care that Peter wrote about.
Earlier in life I had been writing down my blessings, because grateful people are healthier people. But even though I was expressing gratitude for past blessings and current good things, I still found myself worrying about the future. Listing my anxieties and my worries releases them to God’s care. That’s where they should be: on him, not on me.
Take a Time Out
There’s always just so much happening!
It’s presidential election season! I grow weary of the political process, with all the posturing, speeches, and analyses. Sometimes I need to turn that stuff off.
And then there’s the violence: The mass killings, the brutality committed by as well as against police officers, and the innumerable other acts that fill the newspapers and airways. I need a break.
There is also the culture war stuff: Society argues about sex, abortion, gun control, health care, climate change…you know what I mean. And we Christians wind up lobbing theological grenades at each other, as if we really don’t love one another!
Simultaneously, the icons of pop culture show up like jesters in the king’s court. They remind us that all the world is a stage.
Additionally, we are bombarded by all sorts of information, including info that purports to help us be better at just about everything!
With all that is going on in the world and in our personal lives, as well as the onslaught of information we face, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Consequently, it is good to take a time out. To stop. To take a deep breath. To give God our worries. To let God set our agendas.
And the goal of taking the time out isn’t primarily to increase productivity. It is simply to remind ourselves that being with God is more important than trying to do for God (you can explore that idea more by checking out Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero). Resting in God may feel like a challenge at first, but it is a genuine delight.
May God bless you on your journey.
The Missio Alliance folks posted my reflections on their blog site: http://www.christianitytoday.
In addition to my pastoral duties, I have been teaching one class at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN. My class, Exegetical Explorations, has been exploring different genre in the New Testament. Most recently, we have been working through the Book of Revelation (using Reading Revelation Responsibly , written by my friend and former colleague, Dr. Michael Gorman).
I want to share some results from a recent in-class assignment that proved to be particularly insightful for me, a transplant to Minnesota. I had the class break into groups and using the form of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, write a “letter to the church in Minnesota.” Some of you Minnesotans might appreciate how these young students see the church here in the Twin Cities. Here are the letters the seminary students wrote, reflecting what the Lord might say to us here in Minnesota (NOTE: I did not edit the letters, but got permission to post them):
And to the angel of the church of the Twin Cities write:
The words of the One who says more than just good when asked how are you? I know your intentions, and that you want to avoid confrontation at all costs. You long for harmony and seek the appearance of sound relationships. But I have this against you: relationships go deeper than appearance. You clean the outside of your Tupperware, but you don’t clean the inside. Likewise, your relationships appear to be peaceful, but are in reality in passive war. Seek transparency, for those who walk in the truth will experience the truth of God’s promises in the coming Kingdom. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the eight churches.
To the angel of the church of Minnesota,
These are the words of him who is worthy to open the scroll. I commend you for your many good deeds. You have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and offered assistance to the forgotten. Oh how I love to hear of your deeds of mercy, love, and justice. But I have this against you. Have you forgotten that there will be people of tribe, language, people, and nation in my heavenly throne room? Have you so quickly forsaken the call to gather together people of all the nations? For you live in a land of many ethnicities, yet your gatherings don’t reflect that.Repent and make efforts to come together as one just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are One. Otherwise, the light you shine will be dull because of your lack of unity. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is united in spirit, truth, and love, I will give to them the keys of the Kingdom of Light.
To the angel of the church in Minneapolis write:
These are the words of him who died, yet is alive forever and ever. I know your culture. You are nice. Your kind hearts show hospitality to those around you. Nevertheless, you are on thin ice. You gossip and talk behind the same backs of those whom you take in with smiles and coffee. Repent. Let people know what you mean, because you mean what you say. To their face, not behind backs. To the one who is victorious, I will give the North Star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To the Angel of the church in Minnesota,
These are the words of the Holy One, who is the way, the truth, and the light. Praise to you on being knowledgeable of scriptures, for being so nice, and for your generosity! You give a good show of hospitality and graciousness with your money and you instill the importance of scripture in your children. But your niceness is false! It’s not a true love for oneself and ones neighbor. Your outward compliments and generosity are undermined by secret gossip and inward self serving love.Take your knowledge of scripture and make it real. Put it into practice! Wake up, hear the words, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and you can turn your lives to authenticity. Your lives will be a light in a place of great confusion, darkness, and pain. Whoever has ears let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To the angel of the church in Minnesota:
These are the words of him who wears a royal robe and whose eyes are flames of fire. I see how you value nature and have adored my creation from the beginning until now. You who smile with your mouth, but have anger in your hearts. You fool yourselves. Your smile does not always represent Christ. Therefore, repent and be united in Christ despite your differences. He who has ears let him hear, what the Spirit says to the churches. To he who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the pine tree and you will be nourished by the hidden sap in the paradise of God.
You might be interested in hearing an interview I did for the Theological Graffiti podcast. It was a joy to talk with a young thinker and church planter, T. C. Moore. I was in his position some 25 years ago! Listen when you’re able. Perhaps you’ll be blessed by some of the other podcasts and writings that this young man has put together.
I didn’t know if it was appropriate to mention the genocide, or to comment about “Hutu” or “Tutsi” designations while I was in Rwanda. From what I read before I left, as well as my own sensitivities, I decided it was more my place to listen and learn than to talk about something of which I had no first-hand knowledge. The other speakers at the conference did not share my apprehensions, however, and freely commented on the genocide of 1994. One speaker even went so far as to say that the genocide was due to the failure of the Christian Church in Rwanda. All I keep thinking was: “I am among people who must be carrying a great deal of pain.”
Rwanda has experienced many times for reflection this week, and we in the USA have also been remembering the genocide. For about the last week or so NPR has been broadcasting stories about the 1994 genocide as the 20th anniversary is being recognized (extensive killing started on April 7, 1994 and lasted about 100 days. Around 1 million people were killed). I was especially intrigued by the interview given by Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. Minister Mushikiwabo tried to downplay the designations we know as “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and to focus on the need to rebuild. She said:
Whatever is known as Hutu or Tutsi was just used by people who were power hungry and who weren’t ready to share with anybody, and they took it to the extreme. And there are a number of Rwandans, of course, in our society that had nothing to do with that. There are a number of people who went along and later on regret it. There are a number of Rwandans who actually disobeyed the orders to kill their neighbor.
So that’s the kind of country we inherited. And again, to balance all this, to bring sanity, to bring normalcy, to get our economic development going, to open up to the world, it’s not an easy task.
As we were driven along the wonderfully clean streets of Kigali, I could not imagine that human bodies were piled up throughout the city 20 years ago. Susan and I visited the Genocide Memorial and were moved to tears. How does anyone recover from such pain?
Here’s another thing that Foreign Minister Mushikiwabo said:
You know, as we mark 20 years after the genocide, we realize that on one hand, we have done so well as a nation. But we are still a long way. We live with an inbuilt fragility, having to do with the dark history of the genocide. So I’ll say it’s a very difficult balance. If you consider the whole justice versus reconciliation, for us it cannot be versus. It has to be justice and reconciliation.
It is worthwhile to think about what justice and reconciliation can mean for any people—not just the Rwandese. That is something that I think about even here in the USA regarding multi-ethnic ministry and anti-racism work. But right now I am moved by that expression: “inbuilt fragility.”
I am a pastor partly because I know much of life is about all of us having an “inbuilt fragility.” I think of myself as helping people manage their fragility through faith in God and the love of Christian community. Of course, lots of people’s inbuilt fragility shows up as meanness—even toward those who are trying to love them and help them, such as pastors and other church members. We would do well to understand that we all have an inbuilt fragility.
My sisters and brothers in Rwanda, whose entire country has an inbuilt fragility, are teaching me that love can indeed cover a multitude of sins. I don’t know what that will mean for Rwanda as time goes on, but I hope that real love can conquer fear, suspicion, anger and whatever other negative attitudes that might be present. And I hope that more of us throughout the world can learn the same lessons about love. Love is the way that we’ll be able to handle the inbuilt fragility of life.
As I approach Good Friday and Easter—(that is, Resurrection Day)—I am challenged to believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was about love, a love that is meant to heal my inbuilt fragility. And that love is meant to be shared.
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
I recently spent several days in Rwanda as part of a teaching team for the Shepherd’s Leadership Conference, a weeklong conference for Rwandese pastors and other church leaders. There is much to share, especially having been there so close to the 20th anniversary of the genocide (April 6th). I hope to post several reflections on my time in Rwanda. This first is not about the genocide, but about my interactions with a pastor who attended the conference.
Pastor Vincent sought me out after one of the teaching sessions. He appeared to be young, maybe not yet 40 years old. He smiled broadly, eager to greet me. I listened as he reflected, in English, on the session entitled, “The Church and Social Justice,” where I had been the speaker. Pastor Vincent embraced the ideas of my message and wondered how he could help his many members who struggle just to survive. Pastor Vincent serves people who barely have enough food and whose daily lives are more difficult than most of us can imagine. I felt somewhat helpless at that moment. I thought about the things we often talk about in the USA regarding urban ministry, such as strategic partnerships where churches with more resources can share with those who have less.
Pastor Vincent said that his small church outside of Kigali does not have a “mother” congregation and he often feels isolated. Much of what he was saying reminded me of my first church-planting experience. Twenty-five years ago, I struggled to start a church in Brooklyn, NY. My wife and I burned out trying to meet the practical, emotional, and spiritual needs of a young congregation with limited resources. I developed some partnerships with suburban churches so that some money came in to help us, but I still had to work as a teacher to supplement my income and not be a burden to my congregation. My struggles in Brooklyn allowed me to relate—even if just a bit—to Pastor Vincent’s predicament, yet I knew his situation was much harder than mine was.
Sadly, much of my experience with churches in the USA reflects how spoiled many American Christians are. We fuss over things like musical styles, the color of walls and carpets, and whether we were duly entertained on some particular Sunday. Church has become—at least in many evangelical sectors—a contest. Church leaders struggle to be hipper, cooler, and more entertaining than other churches so they can find their niche in the marketplace formed by Christian consumers. At times I have become very cynical over such ways of doing church. Many American Christian writers and bloggers pontificate over how the contemporary church needs to be more like the early Christians seen in the Book of Acts, but honestly, we are far from that picture. We are simply too affluent and self-centered to be like that community of sharing, caring, learning and growing that we read about in the New Testament.
This is not to say that contemporary churches lack charitable enterprises. Some give a good deal of money, food, clothes, and other practical things away to those who have less. But even in the midst of our generosity, we are slow to share our lives with others—particularly with others who are different from ourselves racially, ethnically, and economically. Sometimes even our financial generosity is a way of saying “You stay over there, while I stay over here.” The power dynamics are reinforced even though we think we are helping.
Perhaps the simplest thing is for me to send Pastor Vincent some money. But I know from my experiences that money is not always the best solution. The real solution, the biblical dynamic that is often missing from our contemporary churches when compared to the early Christians, is community. It is connection. It is being sister and brother, across the lines of geography, ethnicity, nationality, gender, economics—whatever.
Pastor Vincent and I have already been in email communication. His broken English is better than my non-existent Kinyarwanda. Am I willing to see how God will let us be brothers, and not just me be a benefactor? Am I willing to learn from Pastor Vincent and not assume that I have answers to his questions?
I never got to take a photograph of Pastor Vincent, but in my mind’s eye I see his smiling face and how happy he was to have a conversation with me. I know how it feels to have someone listen when I am struggling in ministry—especially someone who has been speaking to a large group and appears to be an expert. Those sorts of people never had any time for me when I was a younger pastor. I wanted to make sure Pastor Vincent had my time and interest. Maybe that’s the place to start. I will trust God to guide Pastor Vincent and also to guide me. But at this moment, I am simply grateful that God allowed me to meet this brother in Rwanda.
In light of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, we will likely hear more news over the next few days. As you do, please take that as an opportunity to pray for Rwanda: the nation as a whole, the leaders, the churches, and for pastors like Pastor Vincent.
It seems that this is the time for profundity. Coming to the end of the year encourages reflection on life—our own lives as well as the lives of others. This is the time of year that we get lists (the top… or the best… or the worst…). This is also the time of year that we resolve to take up something (like a new hobby) or put down something (like the fork!). I’m not sure if what I’ll say is profound or not, and I won’t share any “top 10” lists or anything like that. Instead, I want to offer a word of encouragement and hope.
With the transitions, triumphs, trials, and thrills of 2013 now behind us, I offer an encouragement to be thankful—and express that thanks in a variety of ways: Pray to God, share parts of your life with others, give generously, and do whatever you can to express gratitude. It will not only make you feel better, it will go far in helping others to be thankful. And I am encouraging thankfulness no matter what has happened this year.
But to do that requires a different focus. Certainly we cannot be thankful for the terrible things that happened. I would never encourage such masochism. I am rather suggesting an attitude of gratitude—a shift in perspective. Stop looking at what you don’t have, but like the classic 70s song by William DeVaughn says: “be thankful for what you’ve got…”
I tend to be self-critical while simultaneously being very accommodating to others (“accommodating” was the word that someone else used to describe me). I feel that I have not given myself much grace, so consequently I am not always thankful for the blessings that God has given to me. So I encourage you as I encourage myself: be thankful for 2013 and look positively toward 2014.
I offer motivation with both a biblical word as well as a “secular” word. That latter word is from a psychotherapist, Dr. Mark Hansen, who seems to understand how powerful it can be to have the right attitude even in the face of what could be traumatic. He writes of lessons from a dying man.
The biblical word is rather straightforward:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
So I end the year thanking God for being gracious to me. I also express thanks for my lovely wife, Susan Steele Edwards, a social worker, who also patiently works alongside me so we can both be the best that we can be.
I am grateful for my talented, bright, and generous children:
Jonathan, an artist, who uses his MSW degree to serve children in Atlanta while his wonderful wife, Erica, works on her PhD at Georgia State University.
Jason, a musician, who teaches middle school children in the heart of Washington, DC while also serving as the Worship Director at the church I founded, Peace Fellowship Church.
Joanna, an interpreter for the deaf, lives in Brooklyn and serves deaf students in NYC.
Jessica, a teacher, serves economically-challenged middle school students in Houston, TX.
I am also grateful for my church community, The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN. God is doing some wonderful things among us, and I am looking forward to us growing deeply and broadly in the coming year. I am honored to serve as the senior pastor and thankful that despite all my imperfections—or perhaps it is more accurate to say with God working through my imperfections—I am allowed to develop along with every other member of this fellowship.
I end with the words of an ancient hymn that might offer hope to someone (please pardon the lack of inclusive language in this English translation):
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;
Thou mine inheritance, now and always;
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.
High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
So it’s been about 17 months since my wife Susan and I relocated to Minneapolis, MN. We are still getting adjusted to all the changes: new church, new denomination, new city, new relationships, etc (and I won’t speak of winter!). I know we haven’t moved to a foreign country, but I don’t think we anticipated how challenging our move would be after so many years in NY and DC. We miss many people that we love, miss the convenience of traveling familiar routes on streets that we know, and certainly miss our children! Our four adult children (really five, counting our terrific daughter-in-law), are in GA, DC, NY, and TX—all pretty far from Minneapolis, MN! Skype is nice, but not quite the same as real life!
I suspect it is normal when one is in a new place to search out what is familiar. (I’m still searching for good NY-style pizza!). I recall being in Palestine and Israel with a group of people several years ago and at one point seeing the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald’s. I didn’t want to eat there (but I had to go in just to see what it looked like). The same thing happened when we visited our daughter who was studying abroad in Italy a few years ago. The golden arches made me smile, probably because they are symbols of something familiar in a strange place (I also shook my head as I wondered if we are making other countries as fat as our own; but that’s for another discussion).
In my head I know that change is part of life, but when everything seems new, my emotions can make me feel anxious and uncomfortable. I long for something that is stable. Something that is constant. Something that is familiar. I find those things through my faith in Jesus. My faith in Jesus as Lord, reminds me to consider and reconsider an image of God that is pervasive in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). That image is of God as a rock. And that rock is not a pebble or small stone. God is pictured as a massive place of stability—like the Rock of Gibraltar that Prudential Insurance uses in its logo.
I have found myself refreshed recently by the image of God as rock. As a rock, God is consistently just:
The Rock, his work is perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God, without deceit,
just and upright is he (Deuteronomy 32:4)
As a rock, God is a place of refuge when all seems chaotic:
The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge (2 Samuel 22:2-3a)
This week I have been reading Psalm 19 every day. It ends:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
My encouragement is that we meditate on the image of God as a rock. Think of the strength, the constancy, the stability, and the reliability that the image evokes. Consider that no matter where we are, no matter what we are called to do, God is ever-present and reliable. He is our rock.
(There’s another version by the late Whitney Houston for The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack).
“Where do I go, when there’s no foundation stable, I go the rock, I know he’s able…”
Did I do enough? I’ll always wonder that. Did I do enough with my four children to help shape them into the adults that they should be? I did the “normal” stuff: diapers, baby food, soccer practices, basketball games, volleyball games, track meets, football games, dentist appointments, school performances, heart-to-heart talks, book-reading, punishments, movies, bedtime prayers, game nights, road trips—you get the picture!
I was tired at points. I recall the line that Steve Martin’s character gives in the movie Parenthood. When his wife reminds him of something that he has to do, he responds, “My whole life is ‘have to.’” I confess there were times I felt that way. I was a young dad, just 19 days shy of my 23rd birthday when my first son was born. My wife and I were just 17 days shy of our first anniversary! I felt heavy with obligation because of so many things tugging at me as a husband, dad, worker, etc. But I was so thrilled to see my healthy baby boy! I didn’t want to mess up anything. I wanted to be everything I could be for him.
And each subsequent child brought a new sense of joy and profound sense of increasing responsibility.
My own father, Thomas Oscar Edwards, wrote me a letter on my 37th birthday telling me, among other things, that I had just reached the age he was when I was born. He confessed in that letter that because his own father died while he was an infant, he did not really learn how to be a father.
Yet my dad taught me so many things. It’s easy to list what he didn’t do, but I am amazed at how much he did do. He grew up a Black man in America during a miserable time in our country’s history, but still had hope for the future. He served in the army during WWII. He took care of his mother, a widow all of his life, up until she died—a month before I was born. My father raised the five of us siblings plus our two older half-brothers. My dad worked crazy hours at the Post Office in NYC—often leaving our house in Queens well before the sun rose. He was the one, contrary to stereotypes, who dragged us to church while my mother stayed home. He did the best he could with us when my mother died of cancer at just 52 years old, the age that I am right now.
My dad was a brilliant man—especially with numbers—who graduated from the famous Stuyvesant High School in NYC, but never got to finish college. But I only found out where he attended high school after I announced to him that I was planning to take the entrance exam to Stuy. When I told him my plans, he asked, “What made you want to go to Stuyvesant?” I told him my answer and then he told me that he had graduated from there! Later on he showed me his diploma from the class of 1940! He graduated before his 17th birthday.
My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was great. When he died in 1999 I preached his funeral. My youngest sister testified at the service. She was only 11 when our mother died and at the funeral she commented, “Mommy taught us how to be strong, and daddy taught us how to love.” I can only hope that my children will one day say such things about me.
The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, says this:
Children are a heritage from the LORD,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court (Psalm 127:3-5)
I have indeed been blessed by Jonathan, Jason, Joanna, and Jessica. I trust that despite my limitations, God has been at work to make them into the great people that they presently are and even greater yet to become.
I have worn many hats. But two big hats have been those signifying “husband” and “father.” I don’t think I’ll ever feel that I did enough in either job. But I have faith that God has honored my efforts.
I wish all the dads out there who have been learning as they’ve been going along a Happy Father’s Day, and the peace to know that God is pleased as we try to do our best.