Out of the wilderness, into the light
The story is not over.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Quickly go and tell everyone -- Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead! He rose from the dark of the grave into the light of day so that we may all live in resurrection life!
This is the day that changed human history forever.
Because of this one day, all things have become new.
There was once a farmer who had a son and a horse. One day the horse ran away and the neighbors exclaimed, “Such bad luck—you lost your only horse!”
“Who is to say whether it’s good or bad?” asked the farmer. “All I can say for sure is that my horse has run away. Time will tell whether this is good or bad.”
A week later, his horse returned home, followed by 20 more horses. His neighbors shouted with delight, “What good fortune for you! Not only did your horse return, but he brought with him 20 more!”
“Who is to say whether it’s good or bad? All I know is that my horse has come home along with 20 horses, and I must leave it at that.” His neighbors shook their heads and whispered to themselves, “Of course it’s good luck you old fool!”
The next week the farmer’s only son was out riding one of the horses when he fell off and broke his leg. Upon hearing the news, the neighbors came over to give him their opinion. “You were right. Those horses were not good luck. Now your son has broken his leg, and here it is time for the harvest. Such bad luck!”
Once again, the exasperated farmer replied, “Why do you people constantly want to label something as good or bad? Why can’t you just say, ‘Your son has broken his leg while riding a horse,’ and leave it at that? Who is to say whether it is good or bad?”
Upon hearing this, the neighbors were indignant. One guy shouted: “Listen, you crazy old man. It is obvious that your son’s broken leg at harvest time is bad news! You are such a fool to think otherwise.”
The following week, the army came and drafted all the eligible young men, sending them off to war. But they did not take the farmer’s son on account of his broken leg. Afterwards, the people were heartbroken and came to the farmer in tears. “You are so fortunate. Our sons are gone, and we’ll probably never see them again. Such bad luck we have encountered!”
The old farmer once again said, “Why do you continue to insist an event is good or bad? We do not know the end from the beginning. Why can’t you just say, “Our sons have been drafted, and only time will tell if it is good or not. The story is not over.”
We are always tempted to make a judgment too soon, but the truth is we do not know the end of the story.
This past week, we have remembered Christ’s suffering as he courageously faced false accusation and arrest, judgment, condemnation, scourging, humiliation, torture, and a criminal’s excruciating execution on a cross. And even a sense of abandonment from His heavenly Father.
Every disciple of Jesus agreed: “This is the end of the world as we know it. Nothing could possibly be worse. They have killed our King, the one true Son of God.”
And then-three days later, an angel rolled away the stone and Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead! In this moment, the whole history of humanity changed from hopelessness to joy!
Run and tell everyone God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead! Such amazing news! And how does the resurrection make a difference in an individual’s life?
Two years ago, in late March I was lost in a dark wilderness of despair. At 5:30 am, I was shoveling piles of heavy, wet, late spring snow off the stairway of the coffee-shop I had bought six months earlier--Burly Coffee Café in Cannon Falls. My back was aching, my spirit was breaking.
Just a few months before, on November 23, 2009, I got a call from Marnie. "Our granddaughter is being born in St. Paul! I am headed up to see her, but I just called my mom and she sounded incoherent. Will you go and check on her?" I closed the shop and drove over to my mother-in-law's apartment about a mile away. As I walked down the hallway to check on her, she came running out of her apartment and ran into the hallway wall. She was suffering a major stroke. She died a month later, two days before Christmas.
A month later, in January of 2010, the economy was in the tank and I was drowning in the tank, over my head as a businessman. My café was losing a hundred dollars a day. I was up in the middle of most nights fretting and pacing the floor. I lost twenty pounds from running around schlepping coffee and sandwiches eight hours a day. My feet were numb and tingling. I was in my 50’s, with no other career options. The only things I had left were a struggling cafe I had to run or risk losing, the love in family and friendships, and a faith in God that was hanging by a shred of hope.
I felt forsaken, grief-stricken, overwhelmed. I was one foot in the grave of Holy Saturday. ‘Hey, I am a good person. I'm a follower of Jesus. I have served faithfully as a pastor and a spiritual leader for many people', I pouted. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? People in my life agreed: ‘Man, things are tough. Things cannot get any worse. That is a bad streak of luck. We are praying for you.'
I was lost in the darkest woods of life. But it was not the end of the story.
The district office of the United Methodist Church was right next door to the coffee shop and it just so happened that the District Superintendent, Clay Oglesbee, was a coffee hound, and as the months went by and we chatted about life and theology over his daily double skim latte, we became friends.
One day in February, he asked: “Have you thought about re-entering pastoral ministry?” he asked.
Ah. No. I hadn’t. I’d left pastoral work after experiencing several betrayals and disappointments in church life.
“This coffee-shop is my ministry,” I said, without much conviction.
Clay came again in early March and asked: “Could you ever see yourself in pastoral ministry again?”
“No,” I said.
The next day, he came into the shop again and ordered his latte. “Look, I don’t think you’re getting it. I’m wondering if you would you consider going through our process and possibly re-entering the ministry as a UMC minister? I think you would make a great pastor. We could use a person with your gifts and experience.”
Stunned and flattered, I handed him his coffee and said, “Well, OK. I’ll pray about it.”
So began my year-long journey out of the wilderness, when all seemed dark. It was true that my beloved mother-in-law was dead. I was losing thousands of dollars as the owner of Burly Coffee. I was exhausted, unable to find rest, feeling tired and discouraged and stuck. I was grieving and probably depressed—but God came to me through one of his servants and showed me His loving-kindness and mercy in my dark woods, and in the midst of my struggle to live, He came alongside me and called to me—This is not the end of the story. There is light and a life ahead.
No, my story was not over. And a year of recovery and preparation for ministry had begun. I gathered my resumes and references and worked through the United Methodist process for licensure—(we aren’t called ‘Methodists’ for nothing)--sought out a grief counselor, began to attend services at a local United Methodist church led by two kind and thoughtful pastors. And in September I was able to sell my coffee-shop.
And one year ago, during another bleak late Spring storm in Hibbing, I accepted an appointment as a licensed local pastor to serve the Mobile Ministry and two churches near Voyageur’s National Park in Minnesota.
Three months later, Marnie and I had moved to God’s neighborhood and enjoyed a glorious north-woods summer.
I left the dark woods of my inner life to follow God into the literal woods to share the light of resurrection! And this last year has been a real blessing for me. The hope of the resurrection is very real to me. I feel so blessed to have found a new home in the light of day in the woods. My hope has been restored.
Because Jesus lived and suffered as a fully ‘human’ being, we are comforted that He knows our sorrows. Because of his resurrection from the dead, by faith, we can trust that His spirit is with us through the many twists and turns of life. Truly, even in the darkest days, the story is not over. We have the profound hope that in every difficult place, resurrection life will appear because Jesus, our Lord, has promised to be with us and we know he understands the dark woods of our lives because of his suffering on the cross and his descent into death.
Even in the most terrible wilderness, God’s life will arise and shine, for his mercies are new every morning and his love endures forever!
We all have many dark woods to walk through. Some of us must walk through chronic illness, valleys of grief. Others must endure financial hardship, suffer loneliness and isolation. Some of us will have to wander through the deserts of our children’s pain.
Beloved, I have walked through some of these dark valleys with many of you over the last 9 months, but I want to proclaim to you: He is risen!
Because of this day-Easter Sunday, God has said YES to humanity! It is God’s Yes and Amen! He will be in the woods with us and will shine a light ahead. And at the end of our days, our Father is ahead waiting for us—to welcome us into His eternal life—this is the hope of the resurrection—because of Easter morning.
Beloved, what the Lord has done for me, He will surely do for you. When things are most bleak, the hope of resurrection will yet appear. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even when all hope is lost, Christ’s resurrection life invites us to step forward. The hope of Easter is that even when all seems lost, when all hope has been killed and buried in the tomb, the story is not over. Even when it is the end of our story on earth, our story continues with God in eternity—because of Easter.
Romans 8: "Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Beloved, the matter was settled with God when Jesus hung on the cross. Easter is the down-payment of the glorious life to come. The only thing left to do is to believe, to trust. The big word is the little word--‘if’. If we will trust him though all seems dark, He will take our hand and lead us into the morning light of Easter.
Will you trust him today? That is my prayer for all of us.
I would like to close with part of sermon by John Chrysostom (Kris’-sis-tum) who was one of the greatest preachers of the early church…It had been another very hard year in his city. There was not enough food and the Romans had raised taxes again. Out of desperation the people took to the streets in riots. In response to the rebellion, Rome conscripted most of the men to fight in distant wars to the north, while women and children remained behind to scavenge for food. The people despaired, believing their lives would never improve.
John preached on Easter Sunday 400 CE:
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He is risen! He is risen indeed. The light has come into our darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for raising our Savior Jesus from the dead! Thank you Jesus for your redeeming work, for your faithfulness to us. Thank you Holy Spirit for breathing new life into us today! Thank you, O great Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Come Lord Jesus, come.
After a tree fell on me in October 2007, I spoke to a group of people in recovery. In late November, I came back and shared songs and preached again. Here’s what I said that night…
I’d like to sing a song from my record. It’s called ‘Where the road takes a turn.’
Cold snap in the evening
Geese on the fly
Leaves swirl on the sidewalks
Your heart is filled with why?
Dark in the morning
Dark when you get back home
A fire in the fireplace
Cuts the chill of being alone…
There’s a place on each journey
Where the road takes a turn
You get what you came for
If you listen to what you learn.
Hope in the valley
Power in the stream
Faith on the mountain
Love in the dream
Truth is a serum
Wisdom for your bones
Peace of God will fill you
When you turn to head back home…
There’s a place on each journey
Where the road takes a turn
You get what you came for
If you listen to what you learn…
I’ve had several turns in the road in my life.
I converted to Christianity and I made a decision to follow Jesus when I was 22. In that same year my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I made another strong turn when I got married at 25. And another when my wife Marnie and I began a family at 27.
I came to a difficult crossroads ten years ago in my mid 40’s when I was faced with a future that seemed dark and closed. I had lived most of my adult life as an itinerant musician for children and families.
Then the way opened up for me to become a pastor.
Now almost ten years later, again in the Fall of 2007 (just after that damned tree fell on me) I am leaving that way and venturing out into unknown territory once again as a musician. There is a lot of apprehension happening here. Or as some of my best friends say: Faith.
Will people like my music? Will they accept what I say? Will I find an audience who can appreciate my gifts? Will I be able to make a living? Am I crazy?!
Perhaps some of you–maybe all of you–feel you are at a turn in the road of your life journey right now. Maybe your dark, cold morning is a failing relationship, or the dark, cold evening is an illness, a tedious job or stressful career.
Perhaps this valley of your life is that you are worried that you aren’t going to make it through these early stages of your recovery from addiction.
Or perhaps you are a person who has begun flowing in the power of the stream and you are longing to grow and change and looking for permission to sing your song but has never felt free to do so.
Tonight, I am giving you permission. I am inviting you to join in with your gifts. We need you to dance your dance, write your poems, paint your art, live your passion.
I am exhorting you to live your life.
I have my own unique part to play and I need to play it. I stand here tonight trying to fully live my life. My prayer tonight is that at least a bit of this talk will land on you. God is an amazingly creative and personal God and He uses His children to bless others in very personal ways through the unique gifts and talents that He has developed in us. Here is a little story featuring my peculiar part to play in the big story of God.
Kirby-Swing the bat, baby
A couple years ago, while participating in a pastors’ retreat ministry time, a group of us were praying for a 50 year old pastor I'll call Kirby. His wife had just left him. Because this was unacceptable to his church family, they were removing him from his pastorate. He was completely lost and felt forsaken by God. He was now divorced, unemployed and soon to be homeless. The team was praying and ministering to him when I felt led by the Spirit to sing a little song I’d written called ‘Swing the Bat Baby’.
I felt a little embarrassed because the song wasn’t a ’spiritual’ song. I was taking a risk to sing it. It was a baseball song for children. I sang:
“Swing the bat Baby, Swing the bat Baby, Swing that bat and swing it sweet and low--
Swing the bat Baby, Swing the bat Baby, Swing that bat and swing it sweet and low--
1 2 3 Who can this batter be? (It’s Freddie!)
4 5 6 7 8 Step up to the plate and…
Swing the bat baby Swing the bat baby. Swing that bat swing it sweet and low.”
As I finished the song and put my guitar down, the mood seemed to lighten a bit as Kirby chuckled and then he began to softly weep. Through his tears, he told us:
“When I was a boy, I always wanted to be a professional baseball player. And I was pretty good, too. In fact, I signed a contract with a minor league team at 18, and had a real chance to play shortstop at the major league level. But I had grown up in a gang in a ghetto in LA and got in trouble with the law when I was 19. Then I was saved at an evangelistic rally and became a Christian, and the church told me that playing baseball was not an option for me as I was now a Christian. And so I gave it up to become a minister, and I have been serving as a pastor for 25 years.”
We were all stunned. None of us knew that Kirby had been a baseball player.
Could it be that an answer to our prayers came from the heart of God through my little song?
It was all so personal–just for Kirby, just for this exact moment. God had drawn near to him in his distress in his wilderness at the crossroads. When Kirby returned to his life back home, he would face a difficult turn in the road.
It may have been too late for Kirby to be a shortstop for the Angels, but it was the beginning of a new conviction that God intimately knew him, was for him and would continue to be with him.
And we were all greatly encouraged in that hour of prayer. Especially me. I offer up this little piece of birch for your consumption or combustion!
STOP. LOOK. LISTEN
Listen to what you learn.
God is with us in our wilderness, in our suffering. He’s in it for the long run at every turn in the road.
Swing the bat, baby.