On Not Being Socially Distanced

I have an observation. Many people are losing their ability to socialize. The awkwardness brought on by masks, social distancing, and different viewpoints on the coronavirus have led many people just to give up on making conversation, and meeting new people. We don’t know how to be physically distant, and socially close, at the same time.

Some of it is out of courtesy, as people don’t want to impose a conversation or even a fist or elbow bump on someone who is more cautious than they are. So unfortunately, when people don’t know what to say, or how to say it, they don’t say anything at all.

I have noticed this in our worship services. The chairs are spread out, the signs for social distancing are all around, and you are greeted by hand sanitizer when you enter the door. There are no officially designated greeters to shake your hand and welcome you to our church, because we want to make sure we continue to be safe, and that we give everyone their space. But all that creates a sad sense of distance between people, socially.

If you are a visitor, especially, and you don’t know anyone already, it’s easy to walk in our doors on a Sunday morning, find your seat, sit through a service, and then get up and walk out without any real human interaction. You may have been blessed by the music and message from the stage, but you did not engage in any kind of community or connectedness with other believers. Which is everything that church is not supposed to be.

I have had a few conversations with people who started visiting our church early in the pandemic, and they told me it didn’t seem like people were very friendly. I suggested that it had to do with people trying to figure out the “new normal” of social distancing. They were trying to make space physically, which inadvertently kept them at a distance from one another socially. We have never had to do this before, and even with the best of intentions, for some it’s been a difficult learning curve. Some of those same people who felt the lack of fellowship, saw that change when we started Life Groups back and they got involved. Those groups, by definition, lend themselves to more social interaction. And now those folks think our church is “friendly.”

I hope that is the case, but I can understand why some who fall through the cracks might feel differently, if they have come in to our church during the last year of pandemic. The truth is, everyone considers their church friendly–because that’s how it feels for them on the inside, because they have their friends around. The test for a church is whether it is friendly when people come in from the outside, trying to break in to the fellowship of people who are already comfortable with one another. The challenge is for us to make sure that we are looking out for others instead of ourselves when we gather.

I have used the analogy a few times that many people consider church like attending a movie at a theater (back when people used to do such things). When you go to a movie in a theater, you show up, get your popcorn and drink, and find yourself a seat. You watch the movie, and when it’s over, you go out of the theater and you head straight to your car. There’s never even a thought of stopping and having a conversation with others about the movie, or of making new friends. That’s just weird! And if you think of church in that way, you pretty much carry out the same plan when you attend a worship service, sans the popcorn. You sit for the “program” from the stage, and then you leave.

But I would submit to you that whatever that is, it’s not really “church.”

As we have said many times, the Biblical concept of church is a family gathering more than people sitting in an audience facing a stage, looking at the back of someone’s head. Accordingly, it is closer to a family Thanksgiving gathering than it is a program that you watch. You wouldn’t think of showing up with your extended family just in time for the meal, sitting down at your place at the table, and then getting up and leaving without any conversation when the meal was over. Because even the most dysfunctional families at least speak to each other.

So here’s what I am asking you to consider. When you show up for worship this week, be on the lookout for someone you don’t know or haven’t seen in a while–who is outside your “circle”–and go up and greet them. Do not hug them, shake their hand, or violate any social distancing protocols. Just be sociable. Introduce yourself, learn their name, and say hello. Do what you can to make them feel welcome. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interest of others.”

We are going to get through all this, eventually, and the Lord has great things in store for us as we do. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

Faith on the Fly

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!”‘ (Luke 17:5)

Like many of you, I have found that one of the most difficult parts of faith is waiting. Often when we think of faith, we think of people taking great chances, at great risk, to do great things for the Lord. The reality is, however, much of the time in Scripture, faith proves itself most in its willingness to wait on the faithfulness of God.

It is especially difficult to trust in the Lord when you don’t know what the future holds. But again, the reality is, the future is, by definition, uncertain, so you never know how things are going to turn out. Which means you have to learn and practice patient faith in the midst of uncertainty, and “on the fly.”

Speaking of which, Catholic priest and theologian Henry Nouwen gave us a wonderful picture of patient trust not long before he died in 1996. Writing about some trapeze artists who became good friends of his, he explained that there is a very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher.

Now that makes sense to me, since if I was a flyer I would certainly want to be friends with the person who would be catching me out of the air. I would work real hard to make sure that we were all good, that there were no issues or lingering resentment that would come between us. I would want the catcher to like me a lot.

Nouwen explained further that as the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment comes when he lets go of the trapeze and arcs out into the air. For that moment, which I imagine feels like an eternity, the flyer is suspended in nothingness. It is too late to reach back for the trapeze. There is no going back now. However, it is too soon to be grasped by the one who will catch him. He cannot move things forward, and accelerate the catch, no matter how hard he would try. In that moment, his job is to be as still and motionless as he can.

“The flyer must never try to catch the catcher,” the trapeze artist told Nouwen. “He must wait in absolute trust. The catcher must catch him But he must wait. His job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if he does it, it could kill him. His job is to be still. To wait. And to wait is the hardest part of all.”

That is a wonderful picture of the difficult walk of faith–that requires complete trust in the Lord. We must learn to wait, with patient faith, ,and we cannot jump ahead of Him and try to take control. We can’t even allow ourselves to try to “catch the catcher.” We must be still, and wait. And to wait is the hardest part of all.

The last 12 months and this crazy season of pandemic have given us a wonderful opportunity–whether we liked it or not–to be still, and to wait. We may be uncomfortable when we don’t have a sense of control, but it is the perfect place to practice faith and grow our trust in God. Even when things are “unprecedented,” and even when our life is lived “on the fly.”

My prayer for each of us is that we will say on the back side of all this that God has grown our faith in Him, because we learned to wait patiently on Him. May the Lord bless you this week. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday. 

–Pastor Ken

About Our Father’s Business

It was a year ago this week that I first wrote here of this thing we were hearing about called the coronavirus. It would be a few more weeks before things went crazy, but even in that initial blog it was not hard to read of the uncertainty we were facing.

The concerns I expressed that day were three-fold: that the virus as a potential pandemic would be politicized, which clearly turned out to be true. That we didn’t know who to believe and how to discern between the true and false, which again has proved true through the whole process. And that the church would not react in fear, but would be sure to remain ministry focused instead of going into survival mode.

A year later, much water has passed under the proverbial bridge. “Covid-19” became an international pandemic and 2020 a year we will never forget. We faced shutdowns and quarantines, and argued over masks and vaccines. And here I am, getting over the virus myself. For whatever it’s worth, it really hasn’t been that bad for me, and though I am still a little fatigued, it looks like I will be fine. I am grateful for God’s protection, even as I look forward to my quarantine ending on Saturday.

A simple survey of our church members and regular attenders shows that we have had about sixty people in our church family who have contracted the virus over the last year, none of whom have been too serious or faced hospitalization. And as far as we can tell, no one has passed the virus on in church-related activities or worship services at Shelby Crossings. We have sought to be wise and careful, and we are grateful for God’s protection and grace toward us in this regard.

Yes, there’s been plenty of politicization of the deadly virus, and much misinformation has spread from all sides; and no doubt the whole pandemic has been a source of much division in the Church as a whole, even though the Lord has graciously protected our church body from too much disunity.

But here we are a year into Covid-19 and my question is still the same: how will we as a church live out and share the gospel and serve our community in this “new normal” world we are living in? In so many ways, things will never be the same, but the world is more needy than ever and the ministry opportunities are endless. How will we make the best of those opportunities the Lord has put before us to point people to Him?

I wrote a year ago comparing the contagious nature of the virus to the contagious gospel we have to share:

I also can’t help but be reminded that we as Christ-followers are carriers of a contagion of our very own–except that ours is not a disease, but a cure. Sin has a deadly effect on all humanity, but Jesus came and died for our sin, and He has given us His gospel to take to the world to rescue them from their fatal affliction. Just as we have been reading in the book of Acts in our current message series, the gospel was contagious in the the first-century church, spreading like wildfire first in Jerusalem, and then to all Judea and Samaria, and to “the uttermost parts of the earth.” That little group of believers huddled together in the upper room would go on to change their world after the Spirit came at Pentecost. And here we are, 20 centuries later, still sharing the contagious gospel with everyone we come in contact with, the only hope for the world today. So, who are you “infecting” with His hope this week? 

Throughout history, the church has survived plagues, pandemics, wars and even politics. This too shall pass. But the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus, and we must be about our Father’s business of faithfully spreading His love and His gospel to all who will hear. May His name be honored through our church as we serve Him.

Thank you again for your concern and your intercession on my behalf. I am grateful for each of you, and look forward to seeing you on Sunday. 

-Pastor Ken

Love Is Enough

Deer hunting season has come and gone in Alabama for 2020-21, and I suspect many of you are still mourning that fact. Of course, for others that just means it’s almost time for turkey season.

I’ve heard more than a few hunting stories from the past few months, and felt obligated to share one of my own. Unfortunately, I was not involved in this one, but there was a preacher there, along with a lawyer and a doctor, who were in the woods hunting together. When a prize buck ran past they all fired at the exact same time and the buck dropped. The problem was that there was only one bullet hole and they didn’t know which of them shot it.

They decided to take it to the local game warden, hoping that the agent could figure out who could claim the trophy. The warden said, “Let me look at the deer. Sometimes I can figure these things out.” He asked a few questions, examined the deer carefully, and declared, “The preacher shot that buck!”

Amazed, the other two asked how he knew it was the preacher. Stooping down, he pointed out the wound. “See here,” he said, “It went in one ear and out the other.”

I don’t hunt, but I can certainly relate. 

You may have also heard the preacher story about the guy who kept preaching the same message week after week. When one of his members finally questioned him about it, he replied, “Well, you all haven’t started following this one yet, so I decided not to move on till you do!”

That may be a little close to home these days, with all the overlap and redundancy of our current series on the soul. Actually that story may have some grounding in history too. One of the best known of the early church fathers was a man named Jerome, who was a prolific writer and Bible commentator, and translated the Scriptures into Latin (the translation that became known as the Vulgate). He also served as a historian of the early church, and wrote often of the apostle John, the last of the surviving disciples of Jesus.

In one particular account, John was in Ephesus where he had lived until he was very old, and would have to be physically carried to church gatherings. He could hardly put together many words to speak, and the only thing he would ever say in their meetings was: “Little children, love one another!”

When at last the brothers present got tired of hearing the same thing again and again, they asked him, “Master, why do you keep saying the same thing?” John replied, “Because it is the Lord’s command, and it is enough, if it is really done.”

Sometimes, we need to hear the same truths again and again, especially as it relates to God’s love for us and our love for Him, and for one another. It is enough, in fact, because those things are intricately tied together and so very crucial for us if we are to live out the gospel in our world. 

(Thursday night edit: This paragraph at first said that this Sunday–on Valentine’s Day–we would be continuing our series on our Soul Purpose, as we look at how very much our souls are loved by God, and how that allows us to “love one another,” just as John proclaimed twenty centuries ago. However, I had a positive test for Covid on Thursday afternoon, and will not be there on Sunday. Sorry about that. But He still loves you anyway!)

My prayer for you this week is that “…you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)

–Pastor Ken

‘Keep Your Fork…’

I came across a story about a funeral last week, and had to share.

There was a young man who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been just a short time to live. So as he was getting his things in order, he contacted his pastor and had him come to his house to discuss certain aspects of his final wishes. He told him which songs he wanted sung at the service, what Scripture he would like to have read. Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the young man suddenly remembered something very important to him.

“There’s one more thing,” he said excitedly.

“What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply.

“This is very important,” the young man continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”

The pastor stood looking at the young man, not knowing quite what to say. “That surprises you, doesn’t it?” the young man asked.

“Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the pastor.

The young man explained, “My grandmother once told me this story, and from that time on I have always tried to pass along its message to those I love and those who are in need of encouragement. In all my years of attending socials and dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’

“It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming – like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder ‘What’s with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork…the best is yet to come.'”

The pastor’s eyes welled up with tears of joy as he hugged the young man goodbye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see him before his death. But he also knew that the young man had a better grasp of heaven than many people twice his age, with twice as much experience and knowledge. He knew that something better was coming.

At the funeral, people were walking by the young man’s casket and they saw the suit he was wearing and the fork placed in his right hand. Over and over, the pastor heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And over and over he smiled.

During his message, the pastor told the people of the conversation he had with the young man shortly before he died. He also told them about the fork and about what it symbolized to him. He told the people how he could not stop thinking about the fork and told them that they probably would not be able to stop thinking about it either.

And he was right. So the next time you reach down for your fork let it remind you, ever so gently, that the best is yet to come.

May the Lord bless each of you this week. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken 

Home Sweet Home

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” (Eph. 3:17)

Back in November, it was reported that a British archaeologist thinks he has found the childhood home of Jesus in Nazareth. Ken Dark, a professor at the University of Reading, began surveying the site about fourteen years ago when he was studying the history of the town of Nazareth.

“I didn’t go to Nazareth to find the house of Jesus…,” Dark told the BBC. “Nobody could have been more surprised than me.”

This isn’t the first time that archaeologists have claimed that the house belonged to Mary and Joseph, and was where Jesus was raised. Even back in the 19th century some archaeologists suggested that it was their home, but researchers in the 1930s discredited the idea.

Dark found the dwelling, under a 5th-century church building and convent in central Nazareth, and it is consistent with homes built in the first century. He researched the archives and artifacts from earlier digs, as well as excavated evidence unearthed again back in the 1950s, he told the Jerusalem Post. What his study showed was a house carved into a rocky hillside, built by a master stoneworker or carpenter. And as we know, in the gospels, Joseph is called a “tekton,” which was an ancient word for craftsman.

Of course, there’s no way—twenty centuries after the fact—to prove that the house was Jesus’ boyhood home with complete certainty. It’s not like He carved His name in his bedroom closet, or they found some old family documents that had the same mailing address. It certainly could be a home from the time Jesus lived in Nazareth, but there’s no distinct evidence that it belonged to that particular family.

“On the one hand, we can put forward a totally plausible case that this was Jesus’s childhood home,” Dark told CBS News. “But on the other hand, actually proving that is beyond the scope of the evidence. It’s debatable whether it would ever be possible to prove that.”

The ruins of the house show that it is middle class, at best, which is a reminder that Jesus was not raised in a palace, fitting for the King of kings, but something pretty ordinary. He came to meet us where we are, from the stable to the cross.

All of this is interesting, no doubt, but in reality it is not that consequential to our faith in the 21st century. It’s not so important that we know where Jesus lived in Nazareth, in the first century, but whether He now lives in our hearts today. Have we opened the door to Him, and is He at home in our lives?

One of the great prayers in all of the Bible was written by the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus:

“I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” (Ephesians 3:15-18, NLT)

That is my prayer for my church family today. May our Lord Jesus be at home in your hearts through faith, and may you be rooted deeply and securely in His love for you. I am grateful for each of you, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken 

Anyway

The Pardoxical Commandments were written in 1968 by Dr. Kent Keith as part of a booklet for student leaders. They have often been attributed, incorrectly, to Mother Teresa. She did not write them, but she did find them important enough that she put them on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta.

For more than five decades, the “commandments” have circled the globe and have been read by millions of people. They have been posted on walls and refrigerators, included in speeches and sermons, and over the last decade or so, shared extensively over the internet. I hope you don’t mind if I share them with you once more, anyway.

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you are kind, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

May the Lord bless you and use you this week as you serve Him and serve others according to the paradoxical truths of His kingdom, anyway. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken  

Lessons from the Trees

We have had two large trees in our front yard since we moved into our house 22 years ago. We considered having them removed when the house was being built, but the builder convinced us that they were good strong oaks and were a valuable addition to our property. All these years of raking and blowing millions of leaves and picking up acorns has made us question that builder’s wisdom a few times, and we finally had them cut down back in November.

The trees were standing somewhat precariously on the side of the hill of our yard, and every time we had strong winds my bride was afraid they were going to fall on our house. My concern was that they had caused all the grass to die in that part of our yard, which has led to erosion and subsequent drainage issues. So, down they came, though we did save a sizable amount of the trunk and body of the tree and had it cut up into firewood-length pieces and moved behind our back fence.

I borrowed a log splitter from a friend and began to use every minute of off-time in daylight hours to split about sixty good-sized logs into several cords of firewood. It has been a chore, but I finally finished all the splitting this past week, though it’s going to take me a while longer to get it all stacked. After a year of seasoning, I will have firewood to last me for a decade. (And yes, those of you who have fireplaces, there’s plenty to share!)

I have always enjoyed yard work, and used the time for contemplation, “soul talk,” and prayer. (With the splitter, sometimes the prayer is that you don’t lose a finger!) And while wrestling with those big logs on the splitter, the Lord reminded of a few spiritual lessons I thought I would share with you.

One lesson right off the top was, the trees were not as healthy as they had appeared. The view from inside the trunk revealed that they were already starting to rot in the middle, and small bugs had been weakening the tree from the inside out. Both trees may very well have been closer to falling on our house than we even knew. The spiritual lesson is obvious: outward appearances don’t always tell the story. It is dangerous just to focus on the externals of our lives while neglecting our inner selves. That is a common struggle for so many Christians, and one that Jesus warned us about: “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” Make sure your hearts (and souls) are healthy.

The other lesson came from the fascinating rings of the trees, displayed so well in the cross-sections of the trunks, both of which were nearly three feet across. We know from elementary science class how the rings of a tree tell us how old the tree is, and the best that I could tell, both of those trees were somewhere around 60-70 years old. But more than that, those rings also tell the story of that tree’s life, year by year.

There are thin rings, revealing years when the tree hardly grew at all because of a drought. There are thick rings, reflecting healthy years, when the tree grew by leaps and bounds. There are signs where the tree faced times of blight and disease, and times where it flourished.

If we were able to pull back the bark and look at our own lives like one of those big trees, we would see plenty of revealing signs, from deep scars to evidence of healthy growth, that make up our past. Some of those rings would represent wrongs done to us, and some the result of mistakes we made where we had to reap what we sowed. Others would show years of growth because of good choices we made, and because we “remained in the vine” (John 15:1-8) in our relationship with our gracious God.

And I imagine that for most of us, the events of 2020 made quite an interesting ring of its own.

Whatever the case, and whatever our “rings” may look like, God knows where we’ve been, and He’s faithfully seen us through the good times and bad. He will use every one of those years–those we cherish and those we would choose to forget–to grow us up into what, and who, He wants us to be. He is, truly, the Lord of the rings of our lives.

May He bless each of you abundantly this week, that you may be “rooted” in Him. I’m praying for you and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

‘What Lies Ahead’

I considered sharing my thoughts on the goings-on in our nation’s capitol this week, but decided you had probably heard enough opinions by now so I will just keep my frustrations and embarrassment to myself. In fact, I think one of the problems with our entire culture is that everyone not only feels entitled to their opinion, but they also feel obligated to tell everyone else what they think. And of course social media affords us the opportunity to share those opinions with everyone, every day. Sometimes it’s okay just to not say anything, especially when you don’t have anything good to say. Or maybe, if you just have to talk to someone about it, talk to God. Prayer is always a good idea.

Also, I have always tried to be careful here to never confuse our purpose and priorities at Shelby Crossings. It is not now, nor has it ever been–and hopefully, it will never will be–political. This is not our calling, any more than it was for the church of in the first century days of the New Testament, living in the Roman Empire. Sure, we would encourage people to be involved in the political process, as citizens of our nation, but we must also remember that our primary citizenship is in heaven, that we are just passing through here, and our purpose is so much more than politics. We are called to honor Jesus, and to point people to Him–not to any politician or any cause.

I will say, in light of that calling, I am so tired of the hypocrisy on every side. Double standards and inconsistency and “whataboutisms”…as in, every time your side does something foolish, you justify it by asking “what about” the other side? I see so many people who suspend their values and convictions when it applies to their side, but are ready to rail on the other side for the same thing. We as the people of God must humbly stand for truth, consistently and persistently. And humility seems to be the one thing that is most lacking in all of this.

So, let me talk about something else that is dear to my heart. Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the first official worship service of The Church at Shelby Crossings. It was Jan. 7, 2001 when the church gathered for its first public service at Valley Intermediate School in Pelham. We had planned a big churchwide celebration this week, to commemorate that big day, but like so many other things over the past year, we had to postpone that because of COVID. Maybe we’ll throw a big party next year, when we turn 21 and officially reach church “adulthood.”

Over the past two decades, much has transpired in the life of this community of faith, and there are many things God has done worthy of celebration. And I would certainly encourage each of us to stop, and reflect, and remember, and thank God for all the great things He has done in the life of our church over these twenty years. 

The reality is, there are not a lot of people left among us who were there for that first worship service, but for those faithful few who have hung in there for the whole twenty years, we say again…thank you. And, even as we celebrate our first two decades, we hold to the words of the apostle Paul, who wrote of “forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13)

So we celebrate God’s goodness and faithfulness, and all that He has done in each of our lives through this body of believers, we do so with an eye to a promising future the Lord has for us as we walk with Him and share His gospel faithfully with our community. No doubt, the season of ministry of ahead of us–after this pandemic and all of this political strife and division–will be different, and it will likely get more and more difficult. But I trust God will use us in the “new normal” that is to come.

Let me close with more words from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, which speak to us even in the midst of this crazy time in our land:  “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  (Phil. 1:6) 

May the Lord bless each of you. I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken 

‘Because You Know…’

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” –James 1:2-4

I wonder how many Christians really believe those verses? I mean, most of us who have walked with Christ a while and are familiar with the Bible can quote those opening verses from James’ epistle, but that doesn’t mean we live by them, or even agree with them.

I say that because of the constant complaining I read on social media these days about all that we’ve been through in 2020, and the things I hear from friends about how much they couldn’t wait to get the year behind them. Well, it is behind us now, but that doesn’t mean the trials are going to stop any time soon. There’s nothing magical about turning the page of a calendar that makes our circumstances suddenly improve. Life happens, and often that includes difficult and trying times.

And the reality is, as James was pointing out, God is interested in growing us into maturity as His children, and that growth usually comes more through challenging times than when things are comfortable. Yes, James’ words are certainly counterintuitive, telling us to “count it all joy” when we face trials. That means you evaluate your circumstances and the trials and tribulations that you face, and you consciously put them into the category of things you enjoy. What kind of crazy person does that? The one who is secure in knowing his or her life is in the Lord’s hands, and whose goals are more about conformity to Christ-likeness than comfort.

The J.B. Phillips paraphrase of that passage reminds us how other-worldly that concept is: “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance”

So….when you face trials like a worldwide pandemic that knocks you out of your comfort zone; social upheaval and economic uncertainty that make you wonder what the next day’s news will bring; negativity and disunity on every side of the cultural and political divide; isolation and loneliness brought on by social detachment; and even unwelcome rules and regulations that erode your personal liberties–you don’t resent those things as intruders, but you welcome them as friends!

And the key to doing that is the next word…“realize” in the Phillips translation. Realize that those things are there to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. Realize that God allows them, and sometimes intentionally brings them into our lives, because His plan for our lives is greater even than our own. The NIV tells us why we can “consider it pure joy”: because you know that the testing of your faith is the only path that leads to genuine spiritual maturity.

This is not just some pollyanna lunacy that is divorced from real life. On the contrary, it is real life. So I can face things that are difficult, uncomfortable and even painful, because I know that God is at work through those things in my life to mold my character and faith into what He wants me to be–and what I need to be. Living with the expectation that there should be no pain or discomfort or frustration is not only unrealistic, but it is counterproductive toward my goal of being more like Jesus. And that simple change of perspective can make a lot of things more tolerable when we just see God’s hand at work in tough times.

I like how A.W. Tozer said it: “When I understand that everything that happens to me is to make me more Christlike, it solves a great deal of anxiety.” It really does.

So congratulations for making it through 2020! May the Lord use the difficulties and afflictions of the past year–as well as those in the year ahead–to grow us up in Him.

Happy New Year! I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken