Our God Rides a Donkey

donkeyjesusJohn 12:12-15 NRSV

A few moments ago we prayed for a variety of people who all have one thing in common.  They are suffering.  Some are suffering with cancer.  Others heart disease.  Some are trying their best to recover from strokes. Others are recovering from injuries from an accident or a fall.  Others are experiencing the grief over losing a loved one to death.

And of course the question that people of faith ask is why?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

As a Christian pastor, I have often said that the question that one should ask is not “why me?”   But “why not me.”  We are human beings, and the reality is, that human beings suffer.  Human beings get cancer, have heart disease and strokes and get into accidents.

“Why me?”  No, the better question is, since I am a human being, “Why not me?’

Hear me clearly say this: When bad things happen, God is not punishing us, God is not trying to get anyone’s attention, wake anyone up, and God is not trying to teach us something.  In this fragmented world, bad things simply happen.

I hate it when people misquote the Bible by saying that “the Good Lord doesn’t put any more on us that we can bear.”  As if the Lord looks at people like Joyce Letchworth and says: She has buried two sons, had heart bypass and a valve replacement surgery, still, I think she could bear breaking a hip.

God does not put anything on us.  We suffer because we are fragile, immortal human beings and that’s it. And God does not “take,” “pluck,” or “call home” anyone from this life.  We die because we are human.

However, I believe the question that most of us really want answered is not so much, “Why me?”, but “Why isn’t God doing something about it?”  Why doesn’t God do something to prevent or relieve the suffering? We understand that God doesn’t cause suffering, but, why on earth, doesn’t God do something about it?  That’s what I don’t understand.

Well, one easy answer is that suffering is for our own good. A long time ago, Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop, wrote on the educational value of suffering.

Why doesn’t God end our suffering?  Well, through our encounters with pain, we grow and develop. The infant who touches a hot stove learns a valuable lesson.  What if human beings never experienced want, deprivation, terrible heat or unbearable cold? Would human culture have developed among other creatures? No, said Irenaeus. Suffering is thus a great teacher, a wonderful prod for advancement in human development.

Even the book of Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.

Now, I realize that this is somewhat true. The keyword here is “somewhat.” My aching bones tell me that a person in my shape should not try to run a marathon. But what about those whose bones lie in the mass graves in Iraq or Syria? What about the bones of the five year old boy found in a septic tank in Virginia? What lesson is there for that grieving community?

Some pain is helpful, but not all pain. The truth is that there is far too much useless, pointless pain in this broken and fallen world to speak to positively of the educational potential of suffering. What on earth is a child who falls victim to an internet child molester to learn?

Which brings us back to our main question: Why doesn’t God do something about the pain of this world?  Why doesn’t God intervene and do something?

One philosopher once said, “Either God is good, but ineffective and unconcerned, in which case he is not good for us, or, considering the unrelieved, unjustified pain in this world, God is evil.”  There is just too much unrelieved, unaddressed pain in this world to have God any other way.

Another response is that God is very good, but God is simply inactive. This seems to be the conventional modern resolution of the matter. Rabbi Harold Kushner has said that God only had six days to complete the world, and unfortunately, some things were left unfinished. God is not a personal errand boy. Stuff happens. And God? Well, God is simply uninvolved.

This is the modern, deist God of our founding fathers. Deism is the belief that God set up the world then went on a permanent vacation. Deism rescues us from the dilemma of having to make excuses for God’s lack of engagement with us and our suffering. God doesn’t heal, save, rescue or reach in, not because God is unconcerned and unloving, but rather because God is simply uninvolved.

Deism tended to be the faith of most of the modern world because, in order to get the modern world going, the first thing we needed to do was to remove God from the world so that we could be free to run things as we want. Belief in this God who is empathetic but not meddlesome, having gotten God safely filed away as some vague spiritual feeling, we were free to give ourselves more fully to a more effective god—the nation, the economy, or whatever. The bloody 20th century, the perhaps even bloodier beginning of the 21st century, is the result.

But then, despite ourselves—God, all of a sudden, surprises us. God comes. And God acts. A life gets uplifted. Someone comes away healed, whole. A life is changed, a future rearranged.  On her death bed, after suffering more than I have seen anyone suffer, Alawoise Flanagan miraculously smiles, her eyes ablaze with hope. And members of the Flanagan family miraculously experience a peace and strength that surpasses all understanding. Just when we thought God had taken some cosmic vacation, God shows up and we experience life, abundant and eternal.

This is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday that God showed up on the streets of Jerusalem riding a donkey. It isn’t that God is unconcerned, uninvolved, and uninterested in us, it is that the way God comes to us is not the way we want or expect God to come.

William Willimon writes: We wanted Jesus to come in to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to go up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, and set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine.  We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday, from noon until three, with hardly a word.

It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t do anything; it was that Jesus didn’t do the thing that we wanted. It wasn’t that Jesus did not come and intervene; it was that Jesus came riding a donkey.

God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, became one of us, bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in a way that we wanted—but in a way that is all we truly need for life—abundant and eternal.

When my friend, Tony Cartledge’s, eleven year-old little girl died in his arms after their car was struck by a drunk driver, Tony said that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was there. No, God didn’t go after the drunk driver with a vengeance and reverse the evil that had happened, but there God was nonetheless: Holding that little girl with him; feeling Tony’s pain; shedding divine tears; promising hope and peace. God was undeniably present. And “miraculously,” said Tony, “that presence was enough.”  “That presence was all that I needed.”

There are people on our prayer list, and others for whom we prayed today who I pray will somehow, some way, be able to say: “It may not have been what I wanted—but God’s humble, loving, suffering, self-giving, life-changing, healing, hopeful presence, is all that I will ever need—for now and forevermore.  Amen.”

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Our King Wears a Crown of Thorns

6187141-crown-of-thorns-hung-around-the-easter-crossMany people will not worship in a church this Holy Week because someone in the church, without thinking, offered them an easy answer in the face of evil. “God does not make mistakes,” they said. “God is in control. God knows what God is doing,” they said.

The reason I believe people are tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because, contrary to what their good-intended church friends say, they are unaware that God does not reign from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle, but from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me. I believe people become despairing and cynical about God, because they fail to understand that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.

The rulers of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively and with executive orders. The kings of the world rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.

But Christ is a King who rules through suffering, self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ the King rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Enid and Waukomis..

Christ the King doesn’t rule with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. Christ the King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far, but is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.

God’s power is not a power that takes, but is a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules, but is a power that serves.

God’s power is not a power that imposes, but is a power that loves.

God’s power is not a power that dominates, but a power that dies.

This, says the late theologian Arthur McGill, is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life. For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”

Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, God cried with us in that hospital room.

God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.

God did not create the layoff.

The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.

And God did not take your loved one.  When they died, something inside of God died too.

What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the ways of the only true and living God rather than defining our false gods and their ways.

So when life gets us down, we need to remember the great truth of Holy Week—Christ is the King. And this King is reigning, suffering, sacrificing and giving all that God has to give from the cross.

God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. But God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels but a crown of thorns.

Phrases Churches Must Stop Saying

Excerpt from Spring Cleaning of Our Mouths for The Farmville Enterprise

wash+mouthBecause words have tremendous power, there are many words that I believe churches need to stop saying.

We’ve never done it that way before and You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean that “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” These words espouse a “This-is-my-church-my-house philosophy. And any words espousing that this is our house and not God’s house have the power to kill a church.

The Bible clearly says…

Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous. People who use this expression are usually thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

When we infer that we should follow Jesus only to selfishly receive some award instead of punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said: “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said: “Follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons or God doesn’t make mistakes or God will not put any more on us than we can bear or It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

These words have caused countless people to leave the faith. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe too many churches have tried to teach the Christian faith while avoiding the pain and suffering of However, when we move too casually through the season of Lent to get to Easter, when we move too quickly through Holy Week, and sometimes even overlook Good Friday, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: Our God is a God who suffers. God is not seated on a throne far removed from the creation, pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always working for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, painfully doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Spring Cleaning Our Mouths

wash+mouthJohn 2:13-22 NRSV

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Jesus showed up one Sunday morning in church? Would he politely take an order of service from a deacon and quietly find a place in the pews? Would he stand for the call to worship, sing from the hymnal and say the Lord’s Prayer? Would he eat the bread and drink from the cup? Would he put money in the plate when it was passed? Would he earnestly and respectively listen to the sermon, without any reply or retort?

Or would he have something to say? Would anything here anger him or incite him to take some sort of action? Would he take a look at how we were doing church and want to do a little spring cleaning? Would he take a whip and drive any of us out? Would he turn over table or two? Would he come up here to the pulpit and take my sermon notes and tear them to shreds?

Because that is kinda what he did when he visited the Temple in Jerusalem before the Passover. You might say that he did a little spring cleaning. Most scholars point out that it wasn’t so much that the people were exchanging money or selling in the Temple that burned Jesus up, but it was the manner in which they were doing it. The common practice was to charge oppressive amounts of interest, taxes and fees to exchange currency. And when selling cattle, sheep and doves for Passover, it was a common practice to take advantage of and rip off the poor. Just like today, those who can afford the least, often have to pay the most.

So what angered Jesus is how the religious establishment was preying on and hurting others. And this this text is asking: “Is there anything that the church does today that hurts other people?” “What is it about church today that needs a good spring cleaning?”

I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.

The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).

Nathan Parrish, a pastor friend of mine in Winston-Salem said that a mother in his church shared with him her outrage one Sunday after church. She said that during the week, her ten year-old boy came home from football practice and told her that the coach had the audacity to say that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”

She asked: “What do you mean?”

Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”

Laura Johnson, the pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”

The message starts early, and it is pervasive. And it is prevalent in many churches. Through patriarchal language, the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, men are touted as being somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, and women are pushed to a more subservient place. The men belong in the church boardroom; whereas the women belong in the church kitchen.

Words indeed have great power and can cause tremendous harm. So, if Jesus was coming to our church do a little spring cleaning, he would perhaps start with our mouths. So what words in our church vocabulary do you think Jesus would want to drive out with a whip? What words or church expressions would be among the first to be cleaned out? What about:

We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” These words espouse a “This-is-my-church-my-house philosophy. It is what the gospel writer meant when he said: “then the disciples remembered what was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” And any words espousing that this is our house and not God’s house have the power to kill a church. There was a great book written nearly thirty years ago that many churches who are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”

The Bible clearly says…

As I said this past Wednesday night, whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous. You may have heard that there are many elected officials and TV evangelists in our country who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. That means that they would like to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land. That is how they want to bring God’s kingdom to earth. While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!” However their interpretation may be the polar opposite of your interpretation that you try to discern through the words and works of Jesus.

ve the sinner and hate the sin.

 A couple of weeks ago I said that these words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.  We say: “But I don’t do the things that so-in-so does!” That might be good; however, we just need to understand that just because we don’t, we are not any less of a sinner than so-in-so.”

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

I believe in heaven and hell, but the truth is that when we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some award instead of punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a  self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

God will not put any more on us than we can bear.

It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

These words have probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any others. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to teach the faith while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we move too casually through the season of Lent, too quickly through Holy Week, and even skip Good Friday to get to Easter, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers. God is not seated on a throne far removed from the creation, pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

It is almost Passover. And once again, Jesus is visiting the Temple. Jesus is coming, and he’s cleaning house. He is taking a whip and driving out all that we do, and maybe more importantly, all that we say in the name of God that harms others.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

Choosing Our Pain

Mark 8:34-38 NRSV

This past week, I invited someone to visit our church. They responded that they had been wounded so badly by people in the church in the past, that they were much better off staying at home on Sunday mornings. Their words and the snow that had just fallen reminded me of an old song by Simon and Garfunkle:

A winter’s day in deep and dark December

I am alone, gazing from my window to the street below

On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow,

I am a rock, I am an island.

I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship.

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughing, it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock, I am an island

Don’t talk to me about love;

Well, I’ve heard that word before.

It is sleeping in my memory.

I won’t disturb this slumber of feelings that have died.

If I had never loved, I never would have cried.

I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books and poetry to protect me.

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one, and no one touches me.

I am a rock, I am an island,

And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.

How many of us have been tempted by the brokenness of human relationships, hurt so badly by love, that were tempted to withdraw unto ourselves becoming rocks or islands?

We give our love to another—a spouse, a relative, maybe a friend, perhaps even the church. We empty ourselves. We pour out ourselves.  We make ourselves vulnerable as we give ourselves completely to that person, to that family or to that community.  And what do we get in return? We get disappointed. We get betrayed. We get stabbed in the back. We get manipulated. We get used and abused.

Sometimes the pain is so profound and so intense that we are tempted to withdraw. We say: “If loving others is only going to bring heartache and heartbreak, I will never love again! I will never open myself up, empty myself, pour myself out to another!

“If being her friend is going to hurt this much, I’ll go it alone. “If loving him is going to bring this pain, I’ll be a rock.” “If joining a church and getting involved in the life of the church is going to bring this much misery, then on Sunday mornings, I’ll be an island! And I will never feel pain and grief again!  For ‘a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.’”

Perhaps we’ve all said it, or at least felt it. For who can deny the reality that when we do open ourselves up and love another as God has created us to love, we indeed open ourselves up to the enormous likelihood of grief and pain.

However, the question I would like to pose this morning is this: “Is the likelihood of grief and pain any less enormous when we choose to stay home, go it alone? Is it really true that “rocks do not hurt and islands do not cry?” The truth is that if we love, we cannot avoid grief. But can we truly avoid grief by avoiding love? As human beings, is it possible for us to avoid pain by going it alone, by living life outside of community?”

A Buddhist Monk would argue that the one element in life that is unavoidable in this world is pain. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is a basis for reality. Pain is in inescapable. I believe there is an element of truth here. If we love we will suffer. But if we go it alone we will also suffer. Whatever path we choose, pain is always inevitable.

Jesus himself said, “In the world, we will have tribulation.”

But here’s the good news: We have been given the grace to choose our pain.

We can choose to love as Christ taught us to love, choose to be in community and experience the pain of grief. Or, we can choose to become rocks or islands and experience the pain of loneliness. But what every human being needs to do at some point or another is to choose their pain. We can choose the pain that comes from emptying and pouring out ourselves, denying ourselves, loving and forgiving others, living in community or we can choose the greater pain that comes from being alone.

Let’s consider for a moment the pain of loneliness, the pain of living a total self-centered life.

In the beginning, God called everything in creation good. But when God looked around and saw that Adam was alone, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”  John Milton once wrote: “Loneliness was the first thing the eyes of God called ‘not good.’”[1]

The truth is that we were created for relationships. We were created to be with one another and to love one another. Without other human beings, we cannot be truly human.

Commenting on this passage from Genesis, John Claypool once said, “A man by himself is not a man; that is, he could never have become one, nor having become one, remain one, without…other humans.”[2] And although the path of love will lead to the enormous likelihood of pain, any other path we choose will lead to even greater pain.

The pain of loneliness and isolation is so much greater that C.S. Lewis likened it to Hell itself. He once said that the thought of “being alone forever was more fearful than a thousand burning hells.” And such existence is the logical end of not loving, of leading a totally self-centered life. [3]

T. S. Elliot once wrote these words about self-centeredness and loneliness:

There was a door And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle. Why could I not walk out of my prison? What is Hell? Hell is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections. There is nothing to escape from And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.[4]

I believe this is partly what Jesus meant when he said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Loving others as we are created to love others is painful. Being a part of a church can be painful; however, not loving, becoming a rock or an island is “as painful as a thousand burning Hells.”

When I was a pastor in Winston-Salem, our church advertised in our community that we were going to have “a mission blitz.” We were going to take an entire Saturday, split up in teams and to go out into the community to work in people’s yards and homes. We had several people respond to our advertising by contacting the church days before the blitz to request yard work and light housework.

There was an elderly man we will call Mr. Jones who contacted us stating that his gutters needed to be cleaned and his yard needed to be raked. That Saturday afternoon I arrived at his house with three other adults and four teenagers to do the requested work.

Before we could get started, Mr. Jones met us in the front yard. He immediately welcomed us with left over Halloween candy explaining that since the light on his front porch was burned out, not a single trick-or-treater had visited his house this year.

As we sat on his front porch eating fun-size candy bars, Mr. Jones began to share his sad and rather long story with us. He said that since his wife died twenty years ago he had been living all alone in his house. He then shared with us that although he and his wife had desired a family, they were never able to have any children. Having been injured in World War Two, he never had a job, but he somehow managed to make ends meet with his disability checks. When we finally were able to get away from his stories and hospitality, we got the ladders and the rakes out of the truck and went to work on his gutters and yard.

I had not been on my ladder for more than fifteen minutes when Mr. Jones came out of the back door carrying a tray of cups of hot chocolate for all of us. He said, “Y’all better come and get this before it gets cold.”

We stopped our work and visited again with Mr. Jones for another half hour or so. This time he asked us a lot of questions, especially the teenagers. He wanted to know what grade they were in, what their favorite subjects were, what they wanted to do when they grew up, and whether or not they had a girlfriend or boyfriend.

When we finally got away from him again, we began to see something that we had not seen earlier. There was really not that much work to do. He only had one tree in his yard. The gutters had very few leaves in them. They were not impeding the flow of water. And the leaves that were on the ground were being blown by the wind from his yard into a field behind his house.

It then occurred to me, that Mr. Jones did not need any work. Mr. Jones needed us. Mr. Jones needed someone in the world to acknowledge that he was alive. Mr. Jones needed what he was created to need. Mr. Jones needed others to love him. And Mr. Jones needed to love others.

Yes, loving others will inevitably bring us enormous pain. But the pain will not be any less enormous if we become rocks or islands. In fact, the pain of isolation and loneliness may be as enormous as “a thousand burning hells.”

We can choose to love or not to love.  But we cannot choose pain or no pain. Therefore, in this world we must choose our pain. My prayer is that each of us will recommit to choosing the pain that comes with giving, with emptying ourselves, and pouring out ourselves to others.

And may we go out into our community and find the Mr. Jones’ of the world, male and female, young and old, and love them, and allow them to love us.

[1]This quote of John Milton was borrowed from a sermon entitled “When You Are Lonely” by Dr. William Powell Tuck to Hampton Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia on July 20, 2003

[2]John Claypool, “Choose Your Pain”

 [3]Ibid

 [4]William P. Tuck, “When You Are Lonely”