On the Way

Our Missions Trailer that was recently purchased to help our church get moving on the Way.

Mark 10:46-52 NRSV

The first thing we learn from our scripture lesson this morning is that Jesus and his disciples are with a large crowd, and they are on the move. They were on the way. Jericho was not the final destination. There is one last stop to make. Jerusalem: Where furious religious leaders offended by the good news of the gospel, ashamed of the grace of the gospel, have been plotting to put an end to it all. Jerusalem: Where a selfless Jesus is prepared to sacrifice his very life for the sake of others.

It is on this way, this way of self-denial and self-giving, that Jesus is confronted by a man in great need. His name is Bartimaeus. He is not only blind, he is also a beggar. He is helpless, and he is poor. He is disabled, and he is marginalized. Because many believed there must be some purpose driven reason for his blindness, he has been judged and he has been demonized. And, in desperation, he is waiting for Jesus on the side of the road. He is waiting for justice, and he is waiting for grace.

He jumps up and pleads: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And notice the actions of the crowd. They try to silence him. They simply don’t want to hear his cries.

Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever been on the way somewhere, met someone, nodded your head and asked: “How you doin’?” It’s a stereotypical pleasantry, an informal greeting. You expect them to nod back, and say something like, “Good, how you doin’?”

But then, to our surprise, the person doesn’t answer the way we expect them to answer, the way we want them to answer, the way we believe they should answer. No, this person decides to unload on you. She has all of these aches and pains, all of these troubles and frustrations, all kinds of maladies that you label as TMI, too much information.

We don’t like that TMI, especially when the TMI has to do with suffering.

I believe this is one of the reasons why we do not eagerly visit someone who has some sort of disability. We might go, but we don’t want to go. Perhaps it threatens us to be around people who are suffering. Because their circumstances are a reminder of how vulnerable all of us are. We know that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us, or to one of our loved ones. So, we prefer to keep the sick, the troubled, the unfortunate, and the disabled out of sight, thus out of mind.

I admire companies like Target and Whole Foods who make it their mission to hire disabled persons. Fortunately, there are many advocates today for the disabled and others who have been marginalized by society who are urging them to come out, to come forward, to speak up, and to seek equity and equality.

This blind beggar does just that. Despite the crowd who “sternly orders him to be quiet,” the man keeps yelling at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the good news is that Jesus hears his voice. Jesus stops. And Jesus calls him to come over.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Not surprisingly, blind Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

And Jesus does just that. He says, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Then Mark says something that he does not say when recounting any other healing story. Out of all the folks that were healed in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is the only one who chooses to follow Jesus “on the way.”  Out of all the people who were healed by Jesus, Bartimaeus is the only one who becomes a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem; on the way to the cross; down the road of sacrifice and self-denial and suffering; down the road of grace, mercy, justice and eternal life.

Thus, what we have here in this text is not just another miraculous healing story, but a wonderful story of discipleship. And guess what? It’s not just a story about one blind beggar. It is a story about you and me.

For I believe we have a tendency to come to Jesus asking him to heal us, solve our problems, fix what’s wrong with us. We come to Jesus saying: love me, feed me, and make me happy. Give me some sense of fulfillment. We come to church hoping that we might get something out of Jesus, that he might give us a semblance of peace and joy. We come to Jesus seeking help, security and spiritual bliss.

But how many of us come to Jesus because we are truly willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, especially to those places that we know Jesus is heading?

After restoring Bartimaeus’ sight, Jesus tells him that he can go on his way. And who would blame Bartimaeus if he turned around right then to go on his way? Think of all the places he might want to go! Think of all the sights that he might want to see with his new eyes!

Bartimaeus could have gone home with his new found faith in and love for Jesus. He could have been content knowing that Jesus heard his cries, restored his sight, and gave him salvation.

But no, Bartimaeus doesn’t go his way.

Bartimaeus goes Jesus’ way.

Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus. Where? Toward Jerusalem. Toward suffering. Toward rejection. Toward a mission of love, mercy and justice. Toward the cross.

The irony here is that Bartimaeus is introduced to us in this story as a blind man. However, if we are honest, I believe we would have to admit that, in many ways, Bartimaeus may see Jesus better than we do.

Bartimaeus teaches us that this thing we call Christianity, this thing we call church, is about following Jesus. Jesus is not looking for people who merely want to be healed, made stronger, see more clearly and fed by him. Jesus is not looking for people who simply want to agree with him, believe in him, or admire him. Jesus is not looking for people who only want to read about him or study him or even worship him. Jesus is looking for people who truly desire to follow him.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Screwtape Letters, the devil advises an apprentice demon that the main way to keep people from the Christian faith is to prevent the potential convert from doing anything.

The devil says that the main thing “is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it…. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition, but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able to ever act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

To the dismay of the devil, Bartimaeus put his faith into action and followed Jesus, even toward Jerusalem.

In just a few moments this church is going to have what we call an invitation. Some churches call it an altar call. It is a practice that was started in many protestant churches during the turn of the 20th century. Those who wish to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ or become a member of the church are invited to come down to the front as a public sign of their commitment.

Sometimes, this practice has been emotionally manipulative. Preachers have used guilt and other forms of pressure to get people to walk the aisles. Sometimes the act has had little substance or consequence. Because of this, the invitation or the altar call has been dropped in many churches and is very rare in most denominations.

Well, I’m not ready to drop it, because I believe, despite its misuse, the invitation keeps reminding us that it is not enough for us to come together on Sunday morning to get something out of Jesus: a sense of well-being, as sense of peace, a feel-good feeling of spiritual bliss. It reminds us that the point of it all, the point of Christianity is to follow Jesus, to give our lives to Jesus, to stumble after him along the way, even to Jerusalem.

Some of us are doing just that. We are here today because we have been encountered by Jesus and we are trying our very best to follow him along the way. And that’s good. Some of us are going to be going to West Virginia this week to do some of the things that Jesus commanded us, namely to provide shelter for some of our poorest neighbors. Others are making the commitment to go to South Carolina next month to do what we can to help victims of the recent record flooding. Jameson Cowan is following by literally picking up his cross to defend the cause of freedom through service in the United States Marine Corps. And many more of us have committed to serve on various ministry teams through the church.

But some of us have yet to commit. We have yet to follow. The question then is: will those of us who have not quite yet been on the way with Jesus, will we, like blind Bartimaeus, summon the courage, stand up and not be ashamed, be willing to give and to sacrifice and follow him on the way?

On the way down the selfless, self-giving road of discipleship;

On the way to hear and answer the cries of the disabled and the marginalized;

On the way to defend liberty on the behalf of the oppressed;

On the way to speak words of healing to the sick;

On the way to offer grace to sinners;

On the way to put our arms around the troubled and offer hope to the despairing;

On the way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned;

On the way to Jerusalem, where resistance, and even a cross awaits.

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God Is Watching Us

kid cookie

The children were lined up for lunch in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. After watching them for a while, the supervising nun wrote a sign and posted it on the apple tray:

“Take only ONE. God is watching!”

The children kept moving further along through the line, where at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. One of the children looked at the cookies and then wrote a sign that read: “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”[i]

It is amazing how do not change as we get older. We fool ourselves into believing that God is only watching certain sins. We arrogantly like to believe God is only watching those sins we have self-righteously assigned more weight to, namely, the sins of those people.

Jesus once asked a very good question: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3)?

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/08/marlo-thomas-laugh-of-the-day-apples-cookies-and-a-nun_n_1757718.html

Grateful for My Injuries

orubo
Running the OBX Marathon in Bo’s Memory

Last November, I was registered to run the Richmond Marathon. Then, I injured my hip. I notified the Richmond Marathon of my injury, and they graciously allowed me to defer my registration to this November. Then, I injured my knee.

Many people have told me that they are praying that I am able to run the marathon next November.

I began running marathons in 2007 with a group from the Oakmont Baptist Church of Greenville, North Carolina who proudly call themselves: “Oakmont Runners for Bo.” Bo was the only son of Rev. Beth and Tommy Thompson. Bo, a high school track star, was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after I took up running. I ran my first marathon with the group wearing a shirt bearing Bo’s name.

Running in Bo’s memory has helped me to keep life in perspective. It has also influenced my prayer life. Having been given the gift of nearly thirty years on this earth longer than Bo, thirty undeserved years, it is very difficult for me to pray for a pain-free hip or for comfortable knees.

Instead, I pray thanking God that I had the health and the ability to run and to risk injury. I pray thanking God that I have lived long enough to run almost 20 marathons. Instead of praying that I may be able to run another race, I pray thanking God that I was ever able to run any race.

I am afraid that too much of our prayer life is about asking God for more things, instead of about thanking God for the things we have. More often than not, we pray for God to keep us safe and secure from all alarms, instead of praising God for the inexplicable gift of life where risk and injury are inherent.

This Thanksgiving Season, may we truly count our blessings and name them one by one: life; breath; mobility; sunrises and sunsets; cups of coffee with a friend; sitting on the porch watching the rain; a warm embrace; love; and the list goes on and on and on.

Come Home

prodigal_son

Hebrews 4:12-16 NRSV

A huge issue facing the church today is authenticity, or more specifically, a lack of authenticity.

People say that churches are full of people who pretend like they have it all together. Churches are full of fake smiles and phony piety. Churches are full of folks who act like they have all of the answers, have everything on earth and even in heaven all figured out.

Almost every week, I will hear at least one person ask: “Why can’t Christians just be real?” Someone once asked: “Why can’t people act the same way in church that they act at home?”

I believe the reason many Christians are so fake is that we still have a problem with the good news of the gospel we call grace. We have a difficult time believing that God truly loves us, accepts us, and welcomes us just as we are.

Because, it seems too good to be true.

I believe we Christians have a difficult time being authentic, making ourselves at home, because we have a difficult time accepting that the extravagant, amazing grace of Christ that welcomes us to be real; and because of that, we also have difficult time sharing grace. So, not only do we hide or deny our sins, we are quick to point out the sins of others. Consequently, we have gotten this reputation in the world for not only being fake, but also judgmental.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:13-13).

Indeed, but sadly, I believe this is where most folks in the church stop reading the Bible. We cannot even think about laying all of our sins bare before the Lord. So we cover it up, hide it, deny it and try to justify it.

And it is obvious to our friends and to everyone we encounter that we phony.

So listen again to the good news:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

But it sounds too good to be true. Doesn’t it? It is almost difficult to hear.

Let us hold fast to our confession. In other words, let us get real and be real. Let us lay bare our sins and authentically approach the throne of judgement.

Wait minute, it doesn’t say that. Does it?

Let us lay bare our sins and authentically approach the throne of grace.

That’s what it says.

And let us do it fearfully.

No, that’s not what it says.

Let us do it with boldness.

That’s what it says.

So, that we may receive our punishment and find correction.

Nope.

So that we might receive mercy and find grace in the time of need. It’s like coming home. Coming home where we can be real, authentic, yet still be accepted and loved.

But it is sounds too good to be true. Doesn’t it? It is all so extravagant, so amazing. It is difficult for us to read, hear and comprehend.

I believe Jesus knew that we would have a hard time with this. That is why I believe he prepared us for it by telling so many stories.

There was a father who had two sons. The youngest had the amazing gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home. As the youngest, this disrespectful son had no claim to anything of his father’s. Who did he think he was?

Then the truly amazing part: The father takes his “whole living;” (notice how extravagant this is) the scriptures say that he takes all that he has, and gives it to the boy who slips into the “far country” where he wastes every red cent on selfish living. It is only when he finds himself in the time of his need that the boy decides to go back home.

This is where the story gets even more amazing.

“And while he was a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.”

Think about this for a moment.

How did the father see him “a long way off?”

Because the father had been looking for him.

Every day this father sat on his front porch gazing down the road, grieving but hoping and praying that his child would one day come home.

And when he finally came home, he ran to him and cried out: “Come and celebrate with me. My child who was dead is now alive!”

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming. I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you almost hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his preacher, telling him: “Old man, it’s time for you to move on. Old Man, you’ve got to get past this. You’ve got to face the facts. He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. Concentrate on your older boy who is still here with you.”

But the father, amazingly, still waited. Most of his friends probably thought he was crazy. Such excessive, extravagant waiting was hard for them to believe.

After all, he really did not know that his son was ever coming home. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home was an easy target to any would-be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?

Still the father patiently, amazingly waited. Every day he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see his son coming home.

We call this the story of the prodigal son. But William Willimon says that if the word “prodigal” means “extravagant” or “excessive” or “amazing,” it should be called the story of the prodigal father. For when the boy left home, the father extravagantly gave him his entire savings. While he was gone, his friends and neighbors would say that the father excessively waited. And when the boy at last came home, the father extravagantly threw a huge party, holding nothing back. The father loved his son prodigally when he left home, he loved him amazingly while he was away from home and he loved him extravagantly when he returned home with a fatted calf, a new robe and sandals, a ring, and festive music and dancing.

It all seems too good to be true

It is a story of extravagant, excessive, prodigal love. It is a story of amazing grace.

And the good news is that Jesus’ story of the prodigal father is the story about his prodigal Father. And it is the story about our prodigal Father. Our God is a God who, when it comes to grace and love, holds absolutely nothing back.

I know, the truth sounds too good to believe, but it is the truth.

Our God waits, with confidence that the far country of sin and death shall not be the last word. Our God waits, ready to welcome us home with a celebration that is more than we deserve, not because of who we are, but because of who God is, namely a prodigal father.

One of the greatest things about this story told by Jesus is that it does not have an ending. Have you ever noticed that? We wonder if the younger boy ever learned from his mistakes and grew up to be more responsible. We wonder if the older brother ever let go of his resentment. We don’t know. All we know is that both boys are finally safe, at home with the father.

Willimon suggests that perhaps the reason the story does not have an ending is because this story is eternal. We know when the party began. But for all we know, the party never ended. Maybe this is a scene of what we all have to look forward to. An eternal homecoming celebration for those daughters and sons who once were dead but are now alive, who once were lost but now are found.

After our service this morning, you are invited to a homecoming celebration that has been waiting for you that Joan Smith, once called “a true vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

When you see the large amount of food that has been prepared for you this day, it may cause you to pause. It is so excessive, so extravagant, you may have trouble believing it. It will seem too good to be true.

But before this service is over, you are invited to another homecoming celebration that has also been waiting for you. In fact, this homecoming celebration is waiting for you each week. The meal is small. It’s just a tiny cracker and a sip of juice; however, when you understand the meaning of it, the truth of it, the love and grace of it, the extravagance and the excessiveness of it, it may also give you pause. For you may have trouble believing it. It will seem too good to be true.

But the good news is that it is true. For it is the truth. It is the good news of the gospel. It is amazing grace, and it is for you.

So, come home and hold fast to your confession.

Come home and be as real and as authentic as you can be.

Come home with all of your sins laid bare.

Come home and approach the throne of grace with boldness.

Come home because you will not be turned away from it.

Come home because nothing in heaven or on earth can separate you from it.

Come home, because this celebration has been prepared for you, even while you were still a long way off.

Come home, because this table has been set for you even while others have judged you, have condemned you, have given up on you, and even have written you off for dead.

Come home, because your God has not given up on you.

Come home, because your God has been waiting for you.

Come home, because his body has been broken for you.

Come home, because his blood has been shed for you.

Come home, because Christ has died for you.

Come home, because Christ has been raised for you.

Come home, because the baptistery has been filled for you.

Come home, because the Word of God is alive and active for you.

Come home and receive extravagant and excessive mercy.

Come home and find amazing and prodigal grace…

this day and forevermore.

Joseph: More than a Name – Remembering Joseph Scott Thorne

Joseph's Coat of Many Colors
Logo Designed by Joseph Scott Thorne for His Handyman Ministry
Genesis 32:22-30; 37:3

Since Scott and I became friends fifteen years ago, he and I had numerous conversations about his name. Although he did not have a big problem with his middle name Scott, the name by which he was most commonly known, he actually preferred his first name Joseph; because, like the Jewish people of the Bible, Scott understood that names are important.

Joseph was his favorite name for a couple of reasons. First, Joseph reminded Scott of Jesus’ earthly father, the selfless carpenter who had the privilege of raising the savior of the world.

Although Scott was always quick to admit that he was no carpenter, Scott did consider himself to be a pretty decent handyman. And not only was he a decent handyman, Scott was a most selfless handyman. As far as I know, Scott never profited from any of his labor.

I could literally stand up here for the rest of the day and talk about the countless mission projects that Scott worked on voluntarily in Farmville for the First Baptist Church, for Monk Memorial Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Farmville Community Soup Kitchen. Scott spent incalculable hours, many times working all through the night, painting, refurbishing, repairing, restoring and landscaping.

Scott also shared his talents by working on many homes that needed repair throughout eastern North Carolina. Additionally, Scott volunteered at a homeless shelter in Tarboro doing whatever they needed him to do. And just this past summer, he helped our church build a handicap ramp for someone in Farmville, as he built many handicap ramps in this community with the West Edgecombe Baptist Church.

Scott would do anything that you needed him to do, and Scott never expected anything in return. In fact, Scott volunteered to serve, without pay, on staff of the First Baptist Church in Farmville as the Church Sexton. Anytime anything needed repairing or refurbishing, the church could count on Scott.

Along with local mission projects here in eastern North Carolina, Scott traveled to Gulfport, Mississippi to repair homes with the First Christian Church of Farmville after Hurricane Katrina. Scott and Bridget also traveled to Moldova on a mission trip with the Oakmont Baptist Church of Greenville.

Like the Good Samaritan, Scott never passed up any opportunity to help someone in need. And he literally never passed anyone on the side of the road who needed assistance. I bet no one in this room has changed more flat tires for strangers than Scott Thorne.

Scott was always volunteering to do things for me personally. Scott repaired my lawnmower, repaired my son’s electric scooter, repaired my washing machine, repaired my dishwasher, repaired cracks in my sheetrock, caulked my windows, painted my ceilings and spread pine straw around my bushes. Scott was the consummate giver, always doing whatever he could do to selflessly help others.

Like I said, I could talk all day about Scott’s selfless ministry, but Scott would not want me to do that. Because Scott’s favorite name was Joseph.

Scott preferred the name of a selfless handyman who had the honor of raising the savior of the world, yet in the scriptures, does not utter a single word. Scott’s favorite name was Joseph, the name of one who selflessly gave himself to the world, yet never drew any attention to himself and never asked anything in return for his selflessness.

Scott also loved the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, the favorite son of Jacob. In fact, Scott’s dream was to start a ministry based on this story called: Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors. Earlier this year, he designed a logo that he wanted to put on an enclosed tool trailer to use to offer his many gifts with any who needed them, whether it was painting a church or a house or repairing a washing machine. Bridgett said that the T-shirts Scott ordered with the Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors logo were just delivered to their home.

The following are Scott’s words that he put on Facebook earlier this year to describe his dream:

I am trying to start up a new ministry to occupy my time and serve God. Over the past eight years, I have done much needed work on four churches and on many homes of elderly and disabled community members. My wife and I want to continue this ministry. I am not asking for money from my family or friends, only prayers. This type of ministry is not expensive. I always refer back to the time I helped a widow who had a broken shower. She took pan baths for six months, because her hot water nob in her shower was broke. With less than four dollars for a part and with a few tools, I was able to change her life. All I asked was for her to know that God loved her and for a hug. Please lift me and my wife up as we plan a more detailed and organized ministry. The “many colors” in our ministry name represent many aspects of our ministry.

I am not sure I can even remember the last time Scott introduced himself to anyone as Scott. He always introduced himself as Joseph. Sometimes Joseph Scott Thorne; but never just Scott Thorne.

Like the people of the Bible, his name was important to him. Moreover, Scott also understood that names have the peculiar power to bless or to curse. Like few others we know, Scott understood the popular lie that we have been taught by our culture that sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.

Scott understood that names do hurt. He would agree with David Lose, President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia who has written:

“Whether they are names we have been called by others, or those we have called ourselves, names can exaggerate our inadequacies or herald our failures; names can expose our weaknesses or pay tribute to our bad decisions.”

It was no secret that Scott suffered with mental illness. Scott suffered with it, and in a world that does not treat mental illness like other diseases, Scott also suffered for it.

And I believe it needs to be said today, and said clearly, that Scott did not take his life. The disease of mental illness took his life.

Scott would be the first to admit that he had a disease. He would often say something to me in jest that was simply hilarious. For example (now, remember I am a pastor): “Hey Jarrett, why don’t you and I go out tonight, buy us some lottery tickets, get us a case of beer and a carton of cigarettes and just have a big ol’ time.”

Or, after he joined the staff of First Baptist Church as our Sexton: “Hey Jarrett, I am going to get me some business cards that read ‘Joseph Scott Thorne: Sexton. It’s not what you think.’”

I would say, “Scott, you’re crazy.”

And each time he would respond, “Yeah, and I’ve got papers to prove it!”

On some days, Scott could joke about his mental illness. But on many days it was no laughing matter.

It was no secret to anyone that Scott struggled; not just recently, but for much of his life. Some days he felt as if he was blessed by God, but other days, perhaps most days, he felt as if he had been cursed by God.

And more than anything, all Scott wanted was to know that he was blessed by God.

This is the real reason I believe Scott’s favorite name was Joseph. Joseph: the favorite son of Jacob, the fulfillment of the promise of God to Jacob.

None of us will ever understand Scott’s struggles, much like we will never understand the struggles of Jacob. Much like Scott, Jacob also struggled with his name. Jacob, literally, meant “heel,” as he was named for grasping the heel of twin brother Esau in the womb to prevent him from being the firstborn. And ever since that day, Jacob lived his life grasping and struggling.

One might say that Jacob’s grasping and struggling came to a head one night on a bridge over troubled waters. It was there we are told that Jacob wrestled all night. No one knows exactly with whom Jacob wrestled or what monsters assailed him in the dark of that night. Perhaps it was his hopes and his fears; his dreams and his nightmares; his present and his past; his regrets and his hopes. Was it a demon? Was it an angel? Was it an enemy? Was it a friend?

Whatever it was, the struggle was real. The struggle was spiritual. The struggle was mental. And the struggle was even physical, as he dislocates his hip during the fight.

Jacob, realizing that he is in the presence of something real, but at the same time, something supernatural, asks for that which he had always yearned, to be blessed. Because more often than not, Jacob believed that he was somehow cursed.

It is here that the story takes a strange but wonderful twist as Jacob’s opponent demands to know Jacob’s name before he will bless him. But names in the biblical world are never simply names; rather, they are descriptors, tell-tales, indicators of one’s very character.

And Jacob’s name, literally, “heel,” is no exception. Jacob was the one who was grasping to be blessed by God even before he was born. And he’s been grasping ever since, struggling to make sense of the world and to find his place in it.

In asking for his name, the demon or angel or enemy or friend was demanding that Jacob confess— confess his grasping and struggling, confess his pain and brokenness, confess his fears and failures, confess that he can no longer live in this world the way he has been living.

And when he does, when he confesses that he is at the end of his rope; when he confesses he has simply had it with his life; when he confesses that he has had all that he can stand; when he confesses that he wants the pain and the suffering, the dark voices of torment lurking inside his head and in his soul to finally be silenced, something extraordinary happens. Something miraculous happens.

Amazing grace happens. Unconditional love happens. Eternal salvation happens. Resurrection happens. Because God happens. God shows up, and God refuses to allow Jacob’s name, Jacob’s ceaseless struggles, Jacob’s relentless grasping, to define him forever.

So, God gives Jacob a new name, a name that signifies to the world that although he struggled his entire life, struggled with humans and with God, struggled with angels and with demons, he has prevailed. He has finally and eternally prevailed. He has seen God face to face, and his life has been preserved.

Thus, Jacob enters a new future with a new hope. Jacob is given a new name and a new life, a name and a life that he passes down to each of his descendants, but somehow, especially to Joseph, his favorite son, his favorite name.

Joseph: It is just a name. But, it is much more than a name.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one who had been grasping so.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one who had been struggling so.

Joseph: the favorite name of the one you had been yearning to be blessed by God so.

Joseph: the fulfillment of the promise of God to the one who found himself at the end of his rope.

Joseph Thorne, your name means that your dark struggle on the bridge over troubled waters is over.

Joseph Thorne, your name means that although the fight with unseen monsters appears to have gravely wounded you, the good news is that you have prevailed.

Joseph Thorne, your name is the revelation to the world that you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith, and you have struggled with humans and with God, with angels and with demons; with others and with yourself, and you Joseph, you Joseph Thorne have won.

Joseph Thorne, you have finally been given that which you have always yearned. You have finally been blessed by your God. You have been wholly, completely and eternally blessed.

Joseph Thorne, you have seen God face to face, and your life is now whole, complete and eternal; your life, Joseph Thorne, has truly been preserved.

Prayer Works. So Let’s Go to South Carolina!

Missions TrailerEastern North Carolinians, including myself, know the devastation of flood waters all too well. That is why we have been praying for our neighbors throughout South Carolina. We pray, because we believe prayer works.

Pope Frances once said this about prayer: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.”

Prayer works, and prayer creates work.

Prayer generates empathy and sacrificial efforts. Prayer fosters unreserved love and extravagant acts of grace. Prayer encourages boundless compassion and generous acts of mercy. Prayer creates risk. Prayer creates responsibility.

So you know what this means, don’t you? If we have been praying for South Carolina, and we believe prayer works, then we must go to South Carolina and work!

First Christian Church recently purchased a missions trailer that we are currently stocking with tools, materials and supplies to help our neighbors in times such as this. We are planning to lead a mission trip to South Carolina November 15 – 21. We welcome all who have been praying for South Carolina to join us.

If you are interested in donating or participating in any way, please contact our church office at (252) 753-3179. You may also contribute by supporting our Fall Festival for Missions on November 7.

And please, keep praying!

God Wills Diversity

subwayOriginally Published in the Farmville Enterprise, August 2014.

Some of you may remember the infamous response of a Atlanta Braves pitcher when he was asked in 1999 by Sports Illustrated if he would ever play for the New York Mets or New York Yankees. He said:

I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the No. 7 train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there.

The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 teaches us that what the baseball pitcher said “racked his nerves” in the world, is what God, in fact, wills for the world.

In verse 4 we read that the purpose of building the tower was to avoid what depresses some on the No. 7 train leaving Manhattan for Queens, and to avoid what can be heard in Times Square. The purpose of settling in Shinar and building that tower was to live in a world with no foreigners, no confusing babbling in the streets, no queers or kids with purple hair to encounter on the way to work, no eating in the marketplace with people on strange diets, no rubbing elbows with people wearing weird clothes, head coverings or dots on their foreheads. So they came together and said, let’s build a tower of unity “to not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

And God responded to their fear by “scattering them over the face of the whole earth,” by creating a world of diverse languages and cultures, by creating a world of foreigners.

God was only accomplishing what God had always willed for the creation: diversity. In chapter one of Genesis, we read that the original plan for creation was for humankind to “multiply and fill the earth.” And after the flood in chapter ten we read where God sanctions and wills all nations to be “spread out over the earth” (Gen 10:32).

Simply put, from the very beginning of time, in spite of our will, in spite of our fear, God wills diversity.

Therefore, if we ever act or speak in any manner that denigrates or dehumanizes another because of their race, language, nationality or ethnicity, we are actually disparaging the God who willed such diversity. According to Genesis, diversity is not to be feared or avoided. If we want to do the will of God our creator, diversity is to be embraced.

In other words, if we love God, we will also love our neighbor.