In the summer of 2006 I took a sabbatical and traveled the country by train. I spent time with friends and family in Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida. I also visited a different church each week, and then interviewed the pastors – asking a variety of questions about their ministry experiences. I always gave them the chance to end the interview with the last word by asking this question: “Is there anything else you’d like to share?” I recall one answer in particular: Pastor Roosevelt Dunbar of the Amazing Grace Church of God in Christ in Palmetto, Florida said this: “You follow the cloud. If the cloud moves, you move. If it stops, you stop.”
I had trouble understanding what he was saying. It made more sense later when I was studying Exodus 13:21-22, which says, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
God is still in the business of guiding His people. He doesn’t normally provide visible natural phenomena to do it – but that doesn’t mean His guidance isn’t there. The way I see it, there are at least three ways it plays out…
One thing I believe we can always hold on to is this: Christ is present. Jesus said that wherever two or more are gathered together in His name, He’s in our midst. (Matthew 18:20). This is why we don’t have a pope, a bishop, or any singular figure who calls the shots by himself. Christ is present in every baptized believer. His Holy Spirit is upon us. Each of us can discern His will as He guides us. So we’re not alone.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves in very powerful and spectacular ways (as it was on Pentecost in Acts 2:1-31). Sometimes He moves in smaller ways (as it was with Elijah in I Kings 19:11-13). Sometimes there’s a collective experience for a group of people, and sometimes there are individual experiences – but even there I always hearken back to the expression: “If God can speak to one, He can just as easily speak to two.”
So it’s not about any single one of us making the decisions or driving the church forward. Rather, it’s about all of us praying and discerning His will together. And He’s promised us that He’s not going to abandon us along the way.
I did a Bible study recently on Noah’s ark (in Genesis 5:28-9:17) and was amazed to see how relevant it is for what’s going on today – here in our dual national crises of racial violence and the COVID-19 contagion. Several things stood out for me…
The world’s going through a lot of turmoil right now. But God, in His son Jesus Christ, has bestowed grace upon us (6:8). This means that God has plans for us. It also means that we have a lot to thank God for, and that we have a good future ahead of us after the storms have settled.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
First Congregational Church
People suffer, and the question invariably comes: “Why?” And people have different opinions. Personally I don’t think it’s a good idea to make assumptions – and my inspiration for this is the book of Job. No one knew what was going on behind the curtain, but they still talked and discussed as if they did.
The same thing is happening with the coronavirus. I’ve heard people say that God is punishing America for some kind of sin. Which one? That probably depends on which sins are most repulsive for the people making the assumption. It’s dangerous to think this way; assigning something that causes great suffering to God can be taken as indictment on His character. I’m reminded of a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor: “…many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.”
Job had three friends who were like this. Each one had an opinion…
The theological assumptions that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were making didn’t work in Job’s case. And it’s funny since each of them contain elements of inspiring truth. Eliphaz testified to God’s powers of deliverance (5:19-22). Bildad warned about the dangers of misplaced trust (8:11-15). And Zophar tried to inspire hope for better days ahead (11:15-19). Each of these men had been inspired to say these things for some good reasons, no doubt.
But their situation was like someone who’s not a pharmacist trying to make a prescription. The right medicine for one person can be toxic for someone else. That’s why they train people so intensively in pharmacy school. And it’s similar with spiritual things; these three men weren’t qualified to play spiritual doctor with Job in his suffering. Sometimes a person doesn’t need a big philosophy discussion; they just need a friend.
So the book of Job teaches us several important things:
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor
First Congregational Church
Right as the COVID-19 crisis came into the news I was preaching through a four-part series on love. It goes back to the four different love commands of Jesus, which is something I had aspired to do as a series for some time. With everything that was happening, I wondered if I should interrupt the series. Sometimes changing events requires a change of path. But in the end I decided to stay the course: There’s no wrong time to talk about love, and particularly in the way that Jesus taught it…
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry - First Congregational Church of Oroville
I remember when I got the chicken pox as a kid. It all began with a kid named Doug; he was a distant classmate of my brother Eric, so it wasn’t that big of a deal (not to me anyway; I’m sure it was to Doug). But then Dustin got it. He was a closer friend to my brother; his family lived only a couple blocks away from us. And then my brother got it, which inevitably brought it on me as well.
The attitude of most adults in those days was that it was good to get it while you’re still young. You’ll never get it again (so the thinking goes), so it’s just best to get it overwith. (Often that’s true, but years later I met someone who had contracted it three times). But as for me, I wished I’d never had chicken pox to begin with. I was absolutely covered; it was miserable.
Chicken pox is highly contagious but, thankfully, is not permanent and rarely is it lethal. Other contagions are much more dangerous though, including this present coronavirus. These thoughts came to mind as I looked at some of what the Bible teaches on contagions…
Numbers 5:1-4 briefly addresses the concern of contagion. The Israelites were living nomadically in those days, having been delivered by God from slavery in Egypt. God gave them lots of rules, including provision for exiling people outside the camp who were a spiritual/physical risk to everyone else. It later led to more detailed rules of defilement associated with things like leprosy, discharges, and dead bodies. God wanted to protect His people, so some folks had to be isolated from others in the camp.
Leviticus 13:2-3 addressed the case of leprosy in specific, giving rules for official diagnosis. Today we tend to separate the medical and religious establishments, but back then they all blended together. So the Israelite priest was the one who made the diagnosis. They were trained to look and see whether it was it just a skin rash or if it went down deeper. In the latter case, the person was pronounced as defiled – and this had huge consequences.
Leviticus 13:45-46 gave some rules the leper had to follow after being diagnosed. Lepers were exiled from the camp. They had to keep their hair disheveled as a physical sign that they were not well. They also had to give out warning yells as people came near, to warn them to keep their distance: “Unclean, unclean!” It must have been awful. You don’t have to read into the text much to conclude that people must have really felt bad for these folks. They were their family members, neighbors, and fellow citizens. They must have been praying for them, for God to restore them to good health.
Leviticus 14:2-32 is a lengthy text that suggests that healing and restoration sometimes happened. It made me think of Raymond J. Donovan, who served as Secretary of Labor in the Reagan administration. After he was acquitted in 1987 of financial corruption charges he famously asked, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” Sometimes lepers got better, and they wanted to be formally restored to the community. The prayers had been answered. The symptoms went away; conditions improved, but there was still a lengthy process for restoration. Different provisions for ritual cleansing were used based on how much money a person had. But in either case the recovered leper had to be certified by the priest; and they didn’t just immediately go back to normal life. They had to shave their hair; there were faith offerings to be made; there were anointings given on the ear, the thumb, and the toe. And they weren’t allowed back in their tent until after a period of waiting. It was a long and drawn-out process – probably for the purposes of bringing assurances to everyone around that a thorough cleansing from defilement had been completed.
Part of this had to do with the sense of sanctity that the Israelites had for worship. The tabernacle was their designated space of worship, and Leviticus 15:31 makes it clear that they took its consecration seriously. Imagine if profanity were spoken from the pulpit of a church today. There might well be a deep-felt sense of desecration. There were several kinds of designations for defilement in the Old Testament. Some of them involved language, but most often they were physical conditions – and I believe that sometimes God gave the provisions because of the hardness of people’s hearts (cf. Mark 10:5). Sometimes (but not always!) conditions of defilement are based on peoples’ own fears and prejudices, rather than on what God ultimately wants.
All of this comes to mind with a reading of Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 5:12-16. These are parallel accounts of Jesus healing a leper. There are several interesting things to note here:
So how does this affect us today? I’d point to several things…
God bless you.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
First Congregational Church
I took a new interest in the Beatitudes after hearing Brian McLaren talk about them at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville. He challenged Christian leaders to give the Beatitudes some of the same energy that we have for the Ten Commandments (e.g. with monuments, catechisms, etc.) The nine Beatitudes of Jesus are given in the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 5:3-12. There’s also a different version of some of them in Luke 6:20-23.) Then as now, they are both very countercultural and very relevant.
I believe the world is looking for happiness and blessing, so I think the Beatitudes speak to our times. And they point us to some deeper discoveries too, since Jesus didn’t invent the beatitude genre. He was building on an Old Testament tradition that He inherited. There are a couple examples that came to mind recently…
It also speaks of a blessing associated with fear, but the “fear” is not a puppy-dog kind of trepidation. Rather, it’s a reverence, an honoring of God that is rooted in a love for what He teaches us about Himself and life and the common good. It inspires us away from a fearful and worrisome mode of living (112:7-8), so that we can be generous and compassionate as Christ is (112:5,9; cf. Matthew 5:7).
The alternative to this bad detour is to trust in the Lord. This opportunity is anchored in the memory of all that God has done for us; hence what follows in Psalm 40:5 is a prayer to God: “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.” The bottom line is this: God’s blessings are all around us. If we’re observant enough to see and remember some of them, we’ll know there’s no reason not to trust. We won’t be fretful, anxious, or troubled; we will be blessed.
Let’s think of the content of these beatitudes put together: On the one hand, there’s the risk of a bad detour in the direction of ego and idolatry. On the other hand, there’s this yearning for God’s teaching, and for who He calls and empowers us to be (cf. Matthew 5:6).
Have you ever been down a wrong road that took you into a bad neighborhood? Were you scared? Were you delighted when you got out of there and got on the right track? That’s what the path of blessing is like. We follow Jesus, and we know He is gracious. We know that He is leading us in the right way.
God bless you.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I used to have a more entrepreneurial approach to ministry. I thought that pastors and churches need to make things happen. I was motivated towards action. This was partly because I had read Charles G. Finney’s classic, Revivals in Religion. Finney was basically the Billy Graham of the 19th Century, and these were his lectures on revivals that communicate his philosophy of ministry. He saw revival as being all about the right use of the right means. God is always ready to make a revival happen; he believed that any of us can do it if we’re willing to take the right steps. To his credit, he led many people to Christ in what today is called the Second Great Awakening.
I was really drawn to that approach, but later I became more motivated to wait and trust. I had read Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God. Its emphasis was different from Finney’s. You don’t want to just make a bunch of plans and hope that God blesses those plans. Instead, you want to jump on board the moving train of what God’s already doing. It all goes back to the difference between trying to get God to accommodate your will, versus you pursing and seeking His will. So it accords well with the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that says “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” (Matthew 6:10).
That insight was complemented when I read Philip Yancey’s popular book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Yancey pointed out that Jesus didn’t just accommodate the interruptions to His ministry. In fact, the interruptions were His ministry. This served as a necessary corrective to my instinct to be so organized that I rule out God-opportunities that come my way. I normally begin each week with a list of 30 or 40 things that I need to do. I get so focused on that list that I want to push away all the distractions. It’s an approach that turns away a lot of God-moments. So it was good for me to learn to engage the conversations when they happen. With that, I learned to spend less time in front of a computer screen and more time in front of people – listening to them, praying for them, and ministering with them.
The juxtaposition of these different approaches to ministry really struck me. Back last summer I felt compelled to preach on two narratives that illustrate each end of the continuum...
But the second of these narratives provides a useful contrast. The description of the mission of the 70 (or the 72, depending on which Bible translation you’re reading) describes a very planned-out ministry. Only one verse is devoted to the ministry itself (Luke 10:9), which consisted of healing and preaching. But there are a number of verses that focus on the practical details. The first one is prayer; in a famous verse for evangelism (Luke 10:2), Jesus gives the call to use prayer as a means of preparation. Personally I have learned the advantage of making advanced prayers – i.e. praying ahead of ministry meetings and preaching engagements on the schedule. And I have learned the hard way when I have forgotten to do it.
The succeeding verses (in Luke 10:3-8) describe a mixed variety of details that always have to be planned out: food, lodging, travel gear, travel tips, introducing yourself to new homes, etc. People may say “the devil is in the details,” but Jesus was spelling out the details right there. This was His way of giving instructions to His advance team.
It’s also significant that he gave instructions on how to handle rejection (in Luke 10:10-12). Rejection is part of the Christian experience. Don’t be surprised by it; expect it. But don’t overreact to it either. Shake the dust off your feet and move on. The harvest is plentiful; there are more people out there, and there will always be more opportunities to bring a blessing. There will always be homes where a son of peace resides. Where your ministry is well-received, the blessing of peace rests on them. And where your ministry is refused, the peace comes back to you. So it’s a win-win situation either way. Peacemakers always turn out to be the children of God, even when the things that make for peace become such a bone of contention that persecution arises (cf. Matthew 5:9-12).
These two narratives in neighboring chapters of St. Luke’s gospel show that there’s a balance: The church wants to be faithful with the opportunities that God puts in front of us. But we also want to be thoughtful enough to make practical plans. But in either case, it’s God’s project, not ours. So we look to Jesus and we trust in Him as He leads us ahead.
God bless you,
First Congregational Church
“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
- Luke 2:15
I had a job once that I absolutely dreaded. I worked in a warehouse that wasn’t climate-controlled, so it was hot in summer and cold in winter. Since it was a food warehouse, sometimes my work sent me into the cooler (which was around 40°F), and sometimes I also had to go into the freezer (where it was around 5°F). Besides the conditions, some of the people there were difficult to work with. One fellow eventually got fired for being so rude to staff and volunteers. It was easy to criticize him, but looking back I can remember that I wasn’t always easy to work with either. There are reasons why people get grumpy; workplace conditions can aggravate tempers. Plus the tasks of the job were stressful. I was managing both tons of food product and also leading volunteer teams that worked on it. We were getting it ready for the organizations that feed the homeless and the needy. So it was a good cause, but it was difficult work.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? The conditions are harsh, the tasks are stressful, the circumstances are aggravating, and the people are difficult. If so, perhaps you can relate to the shepherds that are mentioned in Luke 2:8. Their work was outdoors in difficult hours. And certainly there were attitudes against them in the popular culture – the type that elites have toward the working class. Bigotry causes all kinds of pain in this world.
Perhaps the best way to respond is to do what the shepherds did: Shift your focus from your troubles to “what the Lord has made known to us”. Faith is all about responding positively to what God has revealed to you. In the case of the shepherds, it came in an angelic theophany (in Luke 2:9-13). The angels gave news of a savior who was born in Bethlehem. It would be confirmed by the sign of a baby in a feed trough – which was not something you see every day. There were lots of babies in Bethlehem; but when they saw that one, they’d know they’d come to the right place.
Faith is a core part of the Christian life. Sometimes it appears in a sequence like what we see in Luke 2:15…
Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Rarely does a person get to see some great theophany. Jesus made this clear when He told the doubting disciple Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed” (John 20:27b). True faith goes beyond what is seen.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re totally in the dark. God has His ways of making things known – through His word, through the lives of Christians around us, through His Holy Spirit, and in any number of other ways. We do well when we focus on that. Yes, life has its difficult circumstances and there are difficult people. But our focus is on what God has shown us, and responding to that in faith. And God always gives us what we need to make the journey.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Life is full of messy situations. They can happen in families, in marriages, in sibling rivalries, in workplaces, and even in churches. What does the Bible say about messy situations?
Amos 7:10-17 gives a good example of a messy situation. It was a clash between the prophet Amos and Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel. (Bethel was the sanctuary worship site that had been established by Jacob after he saw his famous ladder in Genesis 28:10-22). This narrative is found amidst four separate visions that God gave to Amos:
First, he engaged in triangling. Triangling happens when a third party is brought into the conflict before the other person has been addressed directly. Jesus counseled His disciples to go directly to the person before you go to other people (in Matthew 18:15). It appears that Amaziah didn’t do this. He first sent his complaint straight off to the king (in Amos 7:10-11).
Part of the problem is that this leads to a distorted presentation of things. Second-hand versions are notoriously unreliable. In this case, Amaziah painted a picture of Amos as a conspirator against the king. He exaggerated his prophecies of exile as if they were made out as death threats against the king, which wasn’t true. (Compare Amos 7:10-11 with 7:8-9.) Amos had prophesied a national exile, and that happened in 722 BC when the Assyrians conquered and destroyed Samaria. He made reference to the king as the leader of the nation, but it was not a personal threat. Of course that didn’t matter to the priest when he sent out a false version of the story. Lies can go out quickly, and they can be hard to control.
A second problem was in the manner of confrontation. There is a place for biblical confrontation, particularly if the first attempts at conversation have not succeeded (cf. Matthew 18:16-18). But it can also be done poorly. Amaziah’s confrontation (in Amos 7:12-13) was laced with both an insult and with geographic prejudices. His reference to the southern kingdom would be like someone from the American South saying, “Yankee, go home!” And his reference to eating bread (which implies earning a living) was something that maligned Amos’ motives; it suggested that he was only interested in earning a salary.
Fortunately, Amos’ response shows us how we can stick true to the word of God in a messy situation. It’s an ancient account, but there’s much to learn from it for today. I’m thinking of three things…
1 – Identity: When other people have been talking about you, it’s important to have good, well-developed self-concept. Other people aren’t the ones who have the right to define you. That goes back to who you are and what God has called you to be. So Amos started out by making his history clear (in 7:14). He wasn’t part of the old prophetic cohorts who did political assassinations. And he wasn’t simply out to draw a salary; he had other ways of doing that (specifying his background as a herdsman and working with fruit trees). It wasn’t up to Amaziah to define what kind of prophet Amos would be. Other people may try to mischaracterize you, but don’t overreact to that. God knows who you are.
2 – Direction: It’s important not to let your detractors throw you off course. If you understand your life direction and calling, stick to it. Amaziah told Amos to go away, and to leave his ministry in Bethel behind (in 7:12). But Amos remembered how God told him to leave his flocks behind and to go and prophesy. Amos was going to obey God, not men (7:15, cf. Acts 5:29).
3 – Truth: There will always be attempts to silence prophetic voices, but ultimately they can’t succeed in suppressing the truth. Truth is always more powerful than falsehood – which is something that’s important to remember in an age when lies and liars are celebrated. And this links up with the prophecy to Amaziah in Amos 7:16-17. Amos gave a direct word to the priest. It was harsh: it anticipated suffering, death, and unspeakable desecration. But it was vastly necessary. And it was true to the conditions of the exile that came in 722 BC.
Life is full of messy situations, but remember this: God’s Son came into the world to endure the worst of the mess for our sakes. The religious and governing authorities came after Him and killed Him. But they still couldn’t stop Him. In His resurrection we find that truth is more powerful than all the lies. As Jesus said, the truth sets you free (John 8:32).
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
The first worship service I led after the Camp Fire was at the Sycamore Glen retirement community on November 18th. I kind of drew together a collage of scriptures that had come to mind both in the moments of crisis and then afterwards in reflection on all that happened. Here’s a summary of the thoughts and scriptures I shared.
One was Job 1:21, which says “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Hillary and I found ourselves as homeless guests in a friend’s apartment right after the fire with little more than the clothes on our backs. The host couple was very gracious, but all the same, it’s always a bit inhibiting when you’re not in your own place. For one, in sharing space with friends you have to cover yourself as you move around the house. And nakedness in general involves some vulnerability; if you ever have had dreams where you’re naked or exposed, that’s what it goes back to – the feeling of vulnerability. And the fire certainly left a lot of us feeling vulnerable.
Many things were lost in fire: clothes, cars, homes, etc. But these help us turn our thoughts to what is more enduring. I was reminded of the three-fold stained-glass windows at the front of the old chapel where I preached in Paradise – which was also destroyed in the fire. They showed Easter lilies, which remind us of the resurrection. And below them was the text of Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). It was put in by the building architect in in 1909 in memory of his mother, no doubt reminding him of her character. The windows are gone, but her impact is enduring.
Another verse from the Sermon on Mount came to mind while we were stranded in traffic during the evacuation: Matthew 6:19-21 is where Jesus says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That came to mind when I wasn’t sure if we would make it out alive. It helped me to place my focus on what is lasting and indestructible.
A dear friend of our family named Zula Bennington Greene lost her rural Kansas home in a fire many years before we knew her, back in the 1930s. Her observations in her autobiography (now entitled Peggy of the Flint Hills) about their recovery showed the positive side of their losses. She wrote: “We found we could live in two rooms about as well as in eleven, with indeed some advantages – fewer rooms to clean, no unnecessary furniture, clothing, dishes, or ornaments to take care of. Many things were gone which no one wanted, but which we would’ve hesitated to destroy, mellow old things that had been full of tender memories for someone now long gone. The accumulated clutter of two or three generations was disposed of in a roaring conflagration which lasted only a few hours. We could not have known what to do with it. It would have filled up useful space for years. Now it was gone and no feelings hurt. We had nothing that we did not need.”
Placing that in perspective, I thought that the real winners of the fire were my niece and nephew. I’ve never wanted any of my belongings to be a burden to them or their lives, but I know how it can become with old heirlooms. Our house was loaded with old furniture, pictures, and keepsakes going back generations. Who knows if they ever would’ve wanted it? Now it’s no longer around to hinder anyone.
Stuff is just stuff. But that said, the losses we experience are real – and the feelings of loss can be significant. I remembered in our bedroom I had a dresser with two little shelves, and on it I had pictures (one on each shelf) of each my two grandfathers. I also had rings that I had inherited from each one. Today the pictures are gone and the rings are gone, but their influence and the blessing of their lives continues. Some things are indestructible.
In the same spirit, I was drawn to I Corinthians 15:42, which says “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.” I share this one with a qualifier; I don’t believe in treating Bible like one of those old magic eight-balls, where you ask God for a verse, open the Bible at random, put your finger down on something, and hope it’s just what you need to hear. I’m normally more methodical in how I approach Bible study. But when I was stranded at the corner of Skyway and Wagstaff in Paradise, with smoke and fire all around, in what seemed to be an interminably long wait, I needed a word from the Lord. Houses nearby were on fire, no firefighter was in sight, and I was getting anxious. So I opened my little Gideon Bible I plopped my hand down on that verse, and it gave me the hope I needed. Even if we perished in the fire, the resurrection still gives us hope. Life will carry on.
A final verse that I’m drawn to is an excerpt from Ecclesiastes 9:11, where the wisdom author observes that “…time and chance happen to them all.” There is a certain randomness in life, and it was that way with the fire too. With so much that had burned, somehow there were houses that were left standing virtually unscathed in the middle of it all (several of them belonging to members of our church). Some homes were left as the sole remnant of their original neighborhood – with acres and acres of devastation surrounding them. Who can explain this?
Occasionally Christians will say that there’s no such thing as luck, but I’ve never agreed with that. God has made this world with a certain amount of randomness and chance in the created order. The message of the gospel is not that we somehow avoid the chaos that comes with that. Rather, the message of the gospel is found in the cross: Whatever befalls us in this chaotic world, there’s another day that comes afterwards. However bad Good Friday may be, Easter Sunday follows. And there’s where we find our hope.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals.